An Alabama politician is touting a bill that would require public school teachers to read a prayer every day in the classroom — a proposal that has sparked a major First Amendment debate.
Republican state Rep. Steve Hurst has argued that it’s entirely appropriate for schools to open the day with invocations, according to Alabama’s Anniston Star.
The proposed bill would require schools to set aside the first 15 minutes of instruction time to examine procedures that are formally followed by Congress.
Among those procedures, of course, is the reading of opening prayer, which is conducted in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Hurst argues that the lessons would help students learn about U.S. history and civics.
“If Congress can open with a prayer, and the state of Alabama Legislature can, I don’t see why schools can’t,” he told The Anniston Star. “They could read the prayer from the day war was declared in World War II. They could read the prayer the day after Sept. 11.”
Under the parameters of HB318 students would spend a maximum of 15 minutes studying congressional procedures. The prayer would be a part of this instruction time and, according to the proposed bill, text of invocations that have been previously shared by chaplains and faith leaders would be chosen by teachers and read aloud.
Not surprisingly, the proposal is creating First Amendment controversy. A representative for the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in, claiming that this form of prayer opens up potential constitutional conundrums.
Susan Watson, director of the legal group’s Alabama chapter, said that Hurst’s bill seems to be a method of slipping prayer into public school classrooms.
“Religious practices and beliefs are best taught at home and in our religious institutions,” she told the Anniston Star, noting that there’s a big difference between kids in a classroom and adults in the House and Senate. “Children in school are a captive audience.”
A Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty blog post also derided the bill this week, noting that the courts generally take caution when invocations involve kids.
“Courts consistently emphasize the importance of safeguarding children from the coercive effects of state-sponsored prayers in school and at school events,” he wrote. “Parents should be the ones to make decisions regarding the religious indoctrination of their children, not principals and certainly not state legislators.”
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