Heretic on the Hill: Say Hell No! to the School Prayer Bill

I had some concerns about finding a topic this week for two reasons. First, Congress has been out of session this month so there’s not much going on. And second, I’m on vacation and didn’t want to have to knock myself out on it. I just needed someone in Congress to introduce a bill so blatantly violating the First Amendment and the separation of religion and government that this would write itself. Thank you, Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, for introducing the National Prayer in School Act on August 11th.

Despite six decades of constitutional certainty about the illegality of school prayer, Congressman Gaetz has introduced a bill to make it legal. His bill essentially says that “every person” who prevents “any citizen” from praying in school can be sued by that person. Any school official who tells a teacher they can’t lead the class in prayer could be sued. To be clear, prayer is already legal in schools. Kids can pray before math tests. Teachers can pray on their lunch hour. They just can’t do it in front of students or lead students in prayer. That’s the line the Gaetz bill would cross.

Congressman Gaetz said his bill would codify the Supreme Court decision that allowed a football coach to pray quietly and privately at the 50 yard line right after a football game (despite the facts showing that his prayers were neither private nor quiet). The Gaetz bill exaggerates the Court’s decision exponentially but is in keeping with other federal and state legislation proposed to test the limits of the Supreme Court’s decision. Those include the Texas law allowing pastors to replace school counselors, the Texas bill requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every classroom, which didn’t quite pass yet, and the newly approved Catholic charter school in Oklahoma.

These and other bills face court challenges and may eventually get the Supreme Court to clarify how far it will go on specific school prayer policies. As we are learning, on the establishment of religion the Constitution means what the majority of the current nine Justices says it means.

Congressman Gaetz, an attorney, knows his bill is the opposite of a bill that observes the Supreme Court precedents on school prayer, and that it has a zero chance of passing the Senate or being signed by the President. It’s a stunt bill designed to please Christian nationalists and raise campaign money. Nonetheless, it needs to be opposed, derided, and denounced. Please use our Action Alert to tell your representatives that you oppose coerced school prayer and that they should oppose the Gaetz bill should it come for a vote.

It’s never a bad time to revisit the words of Justice Robert Jackson in his 1943 decision upholding the right of students not to have to say the Pledge of Allegiance: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word their faith therein.” Or to wish that more of today’s officials, high or petty, believed that.


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