Kelly Hawes, CNHI Indiana News Service assistant editor
A bill to allow prayer in Indiana’s public schools has won bipartisan support in the Indiana House.
The measure should also draw bipartisan opposition.
House Bill 1024 cleared the House Education Committee by a vote of 10-2. It cleared second reading on Thursday and is now eligible for approval by the full House.
Under the bill’s provisions, students would have a right to express their religious beliefs before, during and after school, but schools would also be required to ensure that no student felt compelled to participate in a program that violated his or her beliefs.
Supporters cite last year’s controversy over a right-to-life poster at Carmel High School as an example of why the proposed law is needed.
Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal organization based in Florida, threatened to sue in December after school officials took down a poster put together by a group called Carmel Teens for Life.
The counsel’s Richard L. Mast Jr. questioned why administrators would single out an anti-abortion message when they had allowed posters supporting other causes such as the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
The school responded by saying it would work with Liberty Counsel to resolve the issue.
Supporters of the proposed bill say many of its provisions reflect current law, and they express hope that the bill will allow the Indiana Department of Education to put together a model for what’s allowed and what’s not.
That’s an admirable goal, but accomplishing that goal might not be easy.
HB 1024 provides that public schools be barred from discriminating on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression. It also provides that students be allowed to express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments, free from discrimination based on those beliefs.
One thing that seemed clear during the committee hearing was that not everyone fully understands its provisions.
Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, told the story of a cousin who went off to Africa and came home as a Buddhist.
“There’s a lot of crazy stuff out there, and we’ve got to enter into the schools,” he said.
From all indications, though, the bill would not restrict anyone from switching religions.
Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, warned backers of the bill to be careful what they asked for. Once they make room for one kind of religious speech, he said, they must allow all religious speech. And when you create a free-for-all, figuring out what’s allowed and what’s not can be overwhelming.
“There’s a reason schools across the country have generally not adopted this,” he said. “Because they legitimately want to have control over what’s being said.”
This measure seems to be trying to fix a system that isn’t broken. There is no ban on prayer on public schools. If you doubt that, just visit any school on test day and check out the number of students bowing their heads in prayer.
The basic rule in public schools today is that religion shouldn’t be forced on anyone. It’s perfectly legal for a school to offer a religion course as long as that course doesn’t wind up favoring one religion over another.
Let’s not go back to the time when Jewish students might be marched from the room during religious studies or perhaps even forced to bow their heads and join in a Christian prayer.
“We’re going to offend kids from every known religion,” Rep. Ed Delaney, an Indianapolis Democrat, told the committee. “The state cannot sponsor prayer without destroying prayer.”
Delaney is right. Lawmakers really ought to listen to him.