Georgia At Odds Over Controversial School Prayer Bill

Another church and state battle is brewing in Georgia, where lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow more explicit religious speech in the state's schools.

House Bill 816, dubbed the "Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act of 2016," would allow students "to voluntarily express their religious viewpoints in public schools," according to the bill's summary, WXIA reports. That includes freedom of religious expression in class assignments, the green light to organize religious groups and activities during school hours, and the right to pray or speak about religion during "public forum" events like graduations.

Supporters of the bill say it pushes back against restrictive rules governing religious expression, while opponents criticize the bill for reiterating existing law and using broad language that could have unintended legal consequences.

Local pastor Sabrina Mackenzie said the proposed law would allow more open religious expression.

"This is will give them the opportunity to not pray silently," Mackenzie told NBC affiliate WXIA, "to not go in a corner and pray, but to congregate as a class or congregate as an assembly."

Mackenzie was among a group of people who rallied in support of the bill on Feb. 8, holding signs and chanting slogans on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol.

Allowing open prayer could have wider positive effects, according to Christopher Carter Polsten, the chaplain at Morehouse College.

"The decline of society really has been co-existing and co-extensive with the removal of God from human affairs," he told WXIA.

Polsten added that he doesn't view the proposed law as discriminatory.

"We want to make it clear that we acknowledge the freedom of religion, and so if a Muslim wants to pray, we should allow them to pray," he said. "If an atheist wants to meditate, we should allow them to do that."

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it intends to fight the bill, Fox News reported, while Wisconsin's Freedom From Religion Foundation said the bill is poorly written. One part of the proposed legislation -- which affirms students' rights to express their religious belief -- is already part of the Constitution, while the second part of the bill violates existing law by allowing students "to promote their personal religious beliefs at school-sponsored events," the group wrote in a response on its website.

"At best, the law does nothing," Sam Grover, a staff attorney for the FFRF, told WXIA. "At worst, it emboldens people to break the law."

The bill is under review by Georgia's House Judiciary Committee, Fox News reports.

Sources: WXIA, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Fox News / Photo source: User David Amsler/Flickr, Cassidy Lancaster/Flickr

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