NEW ORLEANS — AT a recent graduation in a New Orleans suburb, sixth graders at Ethel Schoeffner Elementary received blessings from two ministers: one Methodist, one Baptist. The problem is, Schoeffner is a public school.
As the debate over school prayer heats up in Washington, here in Louisiana and other states of the deep South as many as 85 percent of school districts routinely ignore court-ordered limits on prayer.
Lawmakers are searching for ways to protect prayer without inviting more lawsuits from civil libertarians. In the last two years, five Southern states have passed bills intended to expand opportunities for student-led prayer, and to chip away at what many Southerners consider an undue legal barrier between public schools and expressions of faith.
The South remains the emotional and legal center of the school prayer debate, which promises to engage the nation in spirited dialogue about fundamental issues of states' rights, the First Amendment, and the separation of church and state. "If you took a poll of people in Alabama," says Alfred Sawyer, an Episcopal minister and spokesman for Alabama Governor Fob James, "they would probably support official prayer in the schools. It's a very emotional issue, especially in this part of the country."
America's newest school-prayer bill, passed last month by the Louisiana Senate after just one minute of debate, guarantees students the right to "solemnize a student undertaking or student-centered event by audibly sharing an expression of faith" without having to ask permission from school officials.
It allows for prayer during instructional time as long as it does not present a "significant intrusion," and deletes language from previous bills that limited prayers to the "nonsectarian" or "nonproselytizing" variety.
Larger moral debate
The bill's sponsor, state Senator Johnny McFerren (D), says the bill is meant to ensure that the same rights extended to other student clubs and groups are extended to religious students. The problem, he says, is that existing court rulings give some school officials license to eradicate any hint of religion in the schools, sending home, for instance, a student who comes to school in a T-shirt that says "I Love Jesus."
The debate about school prayer, Mr. Sawyer says, is part of a larger effort under way in America "to get back to some of the morals on which the country is based, one of which is Christian faith." Although there is no direct constitutional prohibition of prayer in the schools, he says, schools have been hijacked by "anti-God" forces who are often "hostile" to religion.
Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia have enacted stronger school-prayer laws since 1993, and Florida, Texas, and North Carolina are considering them.
But Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says advocates of school prayer ignore the words of James Madison, who advocated "a wall of separation between church and state." Besides, he says, it's ridiculous to say that religion has been banished from public schools, particularly in the South.
In many rural districts, he says, school-sponsored prayer continues unchallenged. The ACLU is now suing a Mississippi school district for broadcasting a prayer over the public address system every morning. "People don't give a hoot about the law here," Mr. Cook says. "They pray anywhere, anytime, anyplace, whether it's distracting or unconstitutional or otherwise."
Current bills like the one in Louisiana, he says, basically "allow students to jump up and start praying at any school-sponsored event. You'll have students solemnizing football games, pep rallies, and even physics classes."
The bill would also prevent school officials from limiting religious expressions in, for example, a commencement address. "School administrators are in control," he says, "except when a student wants to lead a prayer." These bills, he argues, "help turn the schools into what the Christian Coalition wants them to be: nothing more than tent revivals."
Yet school-prayer supporters see it differently. Tom Kilgannon, spokesman for the Virginia-based Christian Action Network, asks: "Why is it that when it comes to free speech in the schools, it seem anything goes except for religious speech?"
Right now, Mr. Kilgannon says, many school officials are apt to censor things like religious references in a valedictorian's speech not because they object to them, but because they fear lawsuits from the ACLU. In Alabama, Governor Fob James (R) has been fighting to loosen limits on school prayer. This summer, he plans to draft an executive order and to ask the legislature to reaffirm voluntary school prayer.
Alabama's prayerful push
While Mr. James's proclamation will carry little legal weight, it will offer the argument that the US Supreme Court overstepped its bounds by making the 1962 ruling prohibiting teacher-led prayer. "The courts have no place entering the political realm," says Fob James III, the governor's son and part-time legal adviser. "I don't believe that attorneys and the courts are better judges of what's right than the people in a community."