INDIANAPOLIS — Allowing class time for prayer in schools might not be a critical issue facing Indiana legislators, but a bill in the General Assembly might help school administrators better understand how to handle student expressions of faith, House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said.
“Is it absolutely needed? Perhaps not,” Bosma said Thursday. “Does it give needed guidance? Yes, I believe it does.”
House Bill 1024 would reaffirm a student’s right to express a religious viewpoint by instructing schools to adopt a policy that allows prayer during class time.
The bill passed the House and faces a public hearing this week in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.
The bill establishes that a public school district or charter school could not discriminate against a student-based on religious viewpoint or expression, a right students currently have. But there seems to be confusion over how to apply that right universally, according to the bill’s author, Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis.
“A lot of schools are afraid to let students pray because they’re not sure they will be sued. This bill here puts everything in perspective,” he said.
If a time is set for student-led daily prayers, students could decide whether to participate or, as one option, ask to be excused. The Indiana Attorney General’s Office and the Superintendent of Public Instruction would devise a model policy for schools to use.
Opponents say that student religious rights are already in place in federal and state laws.
Committee member Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, said he sees the bill working only if schools offer world religion classes. That curriculum provision was initially included in the bill but was changed in the House to an elective offering when costs for hiring teachers and other concerns were considered, Bartlett said.
Stoops asked one supporter about possible statements that are anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim.
“It allows the First Amendment to play out,” Ryan McCann of the Indiana Family Institute said.
Proponents point to a November 2016 incident involving a Carmel High School student.
In that case, Mary Zakrajsek, a Catholic member of the school’s Teens for Life Club, hung an anti-abortion poster with hearts depicting lives lost to abortions. School authorities took the poster down. The girl obtained an attorney, and the school relented.
She told the Senate committee: “When I walk down the hallway, and I see Rainbow Pride flags and Democrat donkeys, I think that’s pretty clear evidence of ideology that is promoted in public school systems. It became clear that it was our club in particular that was being discriminated against.”
Supporters, like Bartlett, think the bill would help students develop a moral compass.
"Where we're headed today, we need some spiritual guidance," Bartlett told the committee.
For Bosma, the bill would set into state code what existing case law states.
“All we’re opening the doors to here is guidance for school administrators on what they can and cannot do under the law, rather than them tossing in the towel in and say, 'We don’t want to touch this,'” the House speaker explained.