Lawmakers in Mississippi are proposing a bill that would reinstate prayer in schools if the Supreme Court were to overturn a 1962 decision banning such an act. It’s essentially a “trigger law” meant to go into effect as soon as the conservative justices do away with that vital brick in the wall between church and state.
You may be familiar with trigger laws when it comes to abortion. As soon as Republicans in red states realized there was a good chance the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, more than a dozen states passed anti-abortion laws designed to go into effect only if that happened. Other states already had similar laws on the books. (In Idaho, for example, a proposed law said that, 30 days after Roe is overturned, abortion providers would be guilty of a felony, “punishable by two to five years in prison,” and there would be a ban on the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy—before many women even know they’re pregnant. If Roe wasn’t overturned, the law wouldn’t go into effect.)
The idea here was that these states wanted to ban abortion but a national law prevented them from doing it. As soon as that blanket protection went away, however, bringing the issue back to the states, those lawmakers wanted their anti-abortion policies to go into effect right away.
That’s what Mississippi lawmakers now hope to do when it comes to prayer in schools.
As it stands, state law allows public schools to have a moment of silence up to 60 seconds at the beginning of the day. Earlier this month, however, State Rep. Oscar Denton (a Democrat) proposed HB 79, which would allow “non-sectarian, non-proselytizing student-initiated prayer” over the intercom. Participation by the rest of the school would be voluntary.
Those caveats are irrelevant, though. When students are praying over the loudspeaker, there’s no real way to opt out. (What are you going to do? Plug your ears?) The school would be promoting religion by handing over the public address system to any student who wanted to use it for prayer. In a “highly religious” state like Mississippi, where 83% of people are Christian and 14% of people have no religious affiliation, it’s virtually guaranteed that the “non-sectarian” prayers would promote some flavor of Christianity.
The bill was referred to a subcommittee on education, which is not unusual, and no further actions have been taken on it.
There’s just one massive problem with that bill: It’s obviously unconstitutional.
In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in Engel v. Vitale that school-sponsored prayers were unconstitutional even if they were voluntary.
The case involved a 22-word nondenominational prayer recommended to school districts by the New York Board of Regents: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”
[Justice Hugo L.] Black concluded that “government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people.”
Justice William O. Douglas wrote a concurring opinion, contending that “once government finances a religious exercise it inserts a divisive influence into our communities.”
That case was the basis for a number of later decisions limiting government-sponsored prayers in public schools, which is why it’s long been a target for religious conservatives. They hated that 1962 decision and they hated all the other rulings built on top of it.
When it comes to Mississippi, though, HB 79 would be a clear violation of the current law. Handing students the microphone wouldn’t absolve a school district of its responsibilities. We’ve already seen that with graduation prayers.
It appears that lawmakers realized that right away. Because on Friday, the newly elected State Rep. Jeffrey Hulum III (also a Democrat) proposed a virtually identical piece of legislation, HB 488, that had one significant difference: It would go into effect if and only if the Supreme Court overturned Engel v. Vitale.
HB 488 says if Engel is overturned, then the proposed student-initiated prayers would likely be constitutional, therefore the new law would go into effect 10 days after the Attorney General of Mississippi declared that to be the case.
Hulum’s bill, incredibly, has nine Democratic co-sponsors (along with three Republicans). As far as I can tell, none of them have publicly commented yet on their support of this bill, but a couple of them are pastors who rode their power to public office.
With Democrats like those, who needs Republicans?
It’s no wonder they think this is worth supporting, though. The Supreme Court recently ruled, in the Bremerton case, in favor of a high school football coach who performed coercive Christian prayers at midfield after games. It’s natural for conservatives to think the overturning of Engel is no longer a pipe dream. Precedence no longer matters to the right flank of the Supreme Court.
I don’t know what’s scarier: The fact that lawmakers (Democrats!) are proposing this bill or the fact that those lawmakers think Engel may be on the verge of being overturned.
It’s something that Mississippi lawmakers have been thinking about for a while, though. Two years ago, State Rep. Jill Ford filed a bill to bring forced Christian prayer back into public schools. That bill died in committee, but Ford must have seen that coming at the time, saying, “First step is requesting Congress to allow prayer back in school. Stranger things have happened…”
The current state legislature isn’t waiting for Congress. Why bother when the Supreme Court is already fulfilling conservatives’ wish list?
This bill is a disaster in the making. It would be awful if it passed. It would be disastrous if it were ever enacted. But it’s also horrible that so many lawmakers decided that inflicting their preferred religion on students was worth their time. It’s a bill marked by ignorance, selfishness, and a disregard for the students themselves. They don’t need prayer to improve their schools; in Mississippi, of all places, they need a hell of a lot more than that.