Bill protecting prayer in schools moves forward

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – A bill that makes sure school corporations don’t discriminate against students for their religious expression and allows students to pray during school hours advanced Tuesday.

House Bill 1024 passed the Education Committee 10-2 a little more than an hour before the deadline for bills to advance out of committee.

Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, reintroduces his bill protecting religious expression and prayer for students in front of the Education Committee. Several Indianapolis-based reverends and religious organizations testified in favor of his bill Monday. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Although the bill has several components, in essence, it allows students to express their religious beliefs in homework, artwork, clothing and aloud without fear of discrimination from their peers, teachers or administrators.

The bill’s author, Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, said Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi have passed similar bills that return some form of voluntary prayer to public schools.

The part of his bill that was widely discussed in committee is about requiring schools to create a “limited public forum” for students to talk publicly about their religion.

The schools would then have to make “reasonable accommodations” for students who want to leave the room and be excused from a religious student’s prayer because of their own religious beliefs or lack of belief.

The bill was amended Tuesday by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, to add language that lets school principals step in if an “off-the-wall” religion pops up. He said this would apply to religions that advocate against the government.

Ryan McCann, operations and public policy director for the Indiana Family Institute, said his organization is in favor of the bill. He said it adds a line of protection for student First Amendment rights into the state code, as many religious students and parents his organization works with report that schools cross the line.

“I think the push back with the secularization of our schools is a push back too far the other way,” McCann said. “Any time a religious topic is brought up, at a lot of schools, there’s a nervousness that the ACLU and others are going to come in and sue and drag the school through expensive litigation. So unfortunately, there’s a knee-jerk reaction to violate the student’s First Amendment rights.”

Reps. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, and Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, were the only two on the committee to vote against the bill.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, speaks at length about why he voted ‘no’ against House Bill 1024. He said the bill would go against the 1963 Supreme Court ruling, barring public schools from sponsoring religious activities. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

DeLaney, a legislator with a history of advocating for First Amendment protections, said he voted no because the bill is anti-religious and anti-democratic by allowing state-sponsored prayer.

“Now we’re going to allow students — students in a state institution, under the authority of their teacher and their principal — the student will lead the prayer,” he said. “And those who don’t like it can leave the room. That is simply fundamentally wrong. The courts will not uphold it.”

Tuesday was the second day for discussion on the bill, as testimony was cut short Monday after several speakers.

A couple testimonies Monday, including one by David Sklar from Jewish Community Relations Council Indianapolis, emphasized that this bill just reaffirms existing First Amendment rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union already outlines that public school students have the right to exercise their religious liberty.

The ACLU said school students have the right to pray individually or in groups, express religious beliefs in homework and artwork where those beliefs relate to the assignment, form religious clubs, have equal access to campus media to announce their meetings, and wear shirts with religious messages.

The bill now moves to the full House for consideration.

Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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