Most students open the school day with roll call or announcements from their teachers. Some even have class days that begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. If a new law gaining momentum in South Carolina passes, however, the students in those schools will have a different morning ritual.
A mandatory moment of silence and teacher-led prayer was proposed nearly a full year earlier, but became embroiled in controversy and never made it out of committee. Now, as the South Carolina legislature is preparing to meet again, a new batch of politicians are pushing to make mandatory school prayer a reality.
Mandatory school prayer as a concept on its own is already a massive assault on the separation of church and state. It not only would be the epitome of state-sponsored religion by in effect promoting one faith above others, but would use taxpayer resources — classrooms, school time and teachers — for that promotion.
The South Carolina proposal has even greater freedom of speech issues, both for teachers and students. According to the original bill, ”All schools shall provide for a minute of mandatory silence at the beginning of each school day, during which time the teacher may deliver a prayer, provided the school allows a student to leave the classroom if the student does not want to listen to or participate in the prayer.” As such, it places an enormous amount of pressure both on teachers to “deliver” the prayer even if they object, either due to being of a different faith or simply because they feel the venue is inappropriate. It places just as much pressure on students, who have to actively separate themselves from the group, in essence ostracizing themselves from their class environment, or to passively partake in a religious activity against their wills.
The South Carolina lawmakers behind the bill make no attempt to hide the fact that they want school prayer, regardless of the means it takes to get there or the form that the prayer takes. “The compromise would be to have the students to pray to whomever they want to. If they want to do away with teachers conducting the prayer that would be fine with us. The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school,” Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat and one of the original sponsors, told ABCNews4.
It’s a “compromise” that should be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Regardless of what deity is being chosen and who leads the prayer, it’s clear that the intent is to break down the longstanding precedent that government cannot encourage or endorse school prayer.
“Individual, silent, personal prayer never has and never could be outlawed in public schools,” writes Freedom From Religion Foundation in their frequently asked questions surrounding school prayer. “The courts have declared government-fostered prayers unconstitutional – those led, required, sanctioned, scheduled or suggested by officials. It is dishonest to call any prayer ‘voluntary’ that is encouraged or required by a public official or legislature. By definition, if the government suggests that students pray, whether by penning the prayer, asking them to vote whether to pray or setting aside time to pray, it is endorsing and promoting that prayer. It is coercive for schools to schedule worship as an official part of the school day, school sports or activities, or to use prayer to formalize graduation ceremonies. Such prayers are more ‘mandatory’ than ‘voluntary.’”
The line separating church and state in schools is already threatened in many areas in the country. North Carolina is already allowing public funding in the form of school vouchers to be used in private, religious schools that actively discriminate, and school vouchers as a whole have been used as a way to funnel taxpayer dollars to religious groups.
The school prayer proposal is just one new way to completely erode the line stopping government from promoting faith. Will the legislators accept it, or will it spend another year stuck in committee?
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