While Christianity well outnumbers other beliefs, public schools still have to navigate a fine line to maintain religious neutrality in the public sphere.
Two bills introduced by N.C. Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Denton, sets into law the idea that prayer or religious study in public schools is OK as long as no one is forced to participate.
Both bills are currently sitting in committee, waiting to be voted on. They may pass through the legislature with flying colors or die before ever going up for a vote.
Several years ago, Haywood County School District leaders found themselves between a rock and a hard place. One morning in September, a group of students gathered at the flagpole to pray before school began.
Nothing was inherently wrong, but school leaders did have to ask themselves whether it was permissible on school property. Leaders did not want to impede the students’ right to pray, but they also didn’t want it to appear they were favoring one religion.
“We just have to be very sensitive and make sure we follow the law,” said Haywood County Superintendent Anne Garrett. “We would never inhibit anybody from praying.”
In the end, the school administrators decided the action was fine as long as it was student organized and led. And now every September, students host “See you at the pole,” part of a nationwide movement to kick off the early part of the academic year with prayer.
“It’s just a good way to start off your school year,” Garrett said.
Students can be seen praying over their food before eating lunch — though depending on the quality of the meal, it could be for various reasons — and attending a Bible study club after school. The scene is similar at schools in Macon, Jackson and Swain counties as well.
Jackson County Superintendent Michael Murray expressed a similar sentiment to Garrett’s.
“Public school boards and administrators and teachers must be very cautious when dealing with any concepts about religion,” Murray said.
Murray added that schools opted for a moment of silence, as opposed to a nondenominational prayer, to remember victims in the Newton, Conn., school shooting.
“That gives children totally the choice of whether to participate or not,” Murray said.
A Senate bill introduced in mid-March reinforces what is already the standard practice for most schools — that student-led prayer is allowed as long as it isn’t school sanctioned. The bill lists N.C. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, and N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin among a list of co-sponsors.
The bill is aimed at guaranteeing “student rights to pray in school.” Under the bill, no school can “prevent or deny participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.”
The bill states that students may pray silently at any time or audibly during non-instructional time or during extracurricular activities, such as athletic events.
“I wouldn’t have any problem with that bill,” said Jim Duncan, interim superintendent of Macon County Schools. “That is permissible now.”
Although Davis agrees with the idea of the bill and even signed on as a sponsor, it would not affect the current status quo.
“There doesn’t seem to be a problem,” Davis said. “What problem is this supposed to fix? And if there is not a problem, then the bill is redundant or unnecessary.”
However, some may argue that the bill offers welcome clarification on a somewhat murky matter.
It is not uncommon to see sports teams circle up or take a knee before a game to pray.
“Our team prays as a group before each game and after practice,” Josh Brooks, the football coach at Franklin High School and an advisor for Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the school. “Thankfully, we live in a place where it is still acceptable.”
Technically, prayer among sports teams is supposed to be student-initiated and student-led. Some coaches walk away entirely so it doesn’t seem like they’re endorsing the prayer, while others remain at their players’ side.
The proposed bill would clarify that coaches are allowed to adopt a “respective posture” during a student-led prayer. In other words, it would be OK for them to bow their head without crossing the line, under the proposed bill.
Many coaches, however, take a far more active role in the prayers. In Franklin, a member of the high school football coaching team will typically recite a prayer after each game, Brooks said.
A pastor and former athlete holds a weekly Friday devotion, about 10 minutes or so, with the Franklin football team before eating their pre-game meal.
But the school administrators’ concern is not so much the prayer itself as much as making sure that no one feels obligated to participate.
“It is not forced on anybody, and if someone chose not to take part, we would understand those feelings,” Brooks said. “If any team is saying the Lord’s Prayer, then they don’t have to say it.”
The only way to know if someone feels uncomfortable, however, is if they actually tell someone, which can be complicated when students are of the minority opinion but want to fit in.
N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, agreed that student-led prayer in schools is fine as long as it doesn’t cross a line.
“As long as there is no pressure put on people of any sort,” Queen said. “If it becomes a peer pressure thing or some sort of official thing, it is very hard to include everybody.”
Bible study electives
Another school-related bill that could come up for consideration would permit high schools in the state to offer Bible study as an elective.
Queen called the idea “odd” and said it puts schools in an awkward position because it only focuses on Christianity.
“Public schools are for everybody so it is very hard to promote any religious issues at school,” Queen said. “All of their faiths need to be respected in school.”
He added that U.S. schools are already struggling to keep up with other countries in terms of math and science.
“Leave children’s faith journey to them. We have so many things to get right like reading and arithmetic,” Queen said.
Davis said that he saw no problem with offering Bible study as an elective.
“So long as it’s not coerced or mandatory,” Davis said.
The Bible study elective — as with the student-led prayer during athletic games — would be voluntary, according to the bill.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville. “If the student chooses to go, then that’s fine.”
However, this bill may be unnecessary since the state education curriculum already includes an elective teaching the New Testament and another focusing on the Old Testament.
“That is already allowable,” said Duncan, interim superintendent in Macon. “It is not part of the courses offered at Macon County, but it is not prohibited.”
Of course, a state bill would carry more weight. It would ensure Bible electives remain on the list of allowed electives and don’t get removed down the road.
No matter whether it passes, schools will not likely be rushing to add it to their course schedule. Haywood County school administrators have been approached before about adding some sort of religion-related elective, but the student interest just wasn’t there.
“We have tried several times. We have just not been able to pursue it,” said Garrett, superintendent in Haywood County. “We just haven’t had the demand for it as of yet.”
Duncan said students are limited to only a couple of electives because of all the mandatory classes they must pass. And most students want to play in the band or take a sport or learn a foreign language, he said.
Plus, with schools running on fewer funds, it would be difficult to find the money to pay a teacher. So instead of a class, a number of schools have voluntary, religious-based clubs that meet before or after the school day.
Franklin High School’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes meets every Tuesday morning before class to sing, worship, play games, listen to guest speakers and talk about Biblical teachings.
The group is a national organization, and despite its name, anyone can join, not just athletes.
Student leaders within the group plan the music or activities and schedule speakers.
“The kids do all the work,” Brooks said. “We are just there for support only.”
The club gives students, particularly new freshmen, “a network of people we can lean on when we need it,” Brooks added.
Separation of church and state? State can take it or leave it
A resolution introduced in the N.C. General Assembly last week has landed in the national media spotlight for claiming the state is immune to the “separation of church and state.”
N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Charlotte, has effectively called the bill “dead on arrival.” It purports that the state is exempt from any federal court rulings regulating religion as well as the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The establishment clause states “Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of Religion.”
In other words, the separation of church and state wouldn’t apply in North Carolina if the bill sponsors got their way.
N.C. Rep. Queen, D-Waynesville, said he thought the resolution was a joke when he first read it.
“I got it on April Fool’s Day, and I thought it was some spoof on the dumb things we are doing in the legislature,” Queen said.
State leaders have more pressing matters, he said, than mulling legislation that “flies in the face of the Constitution.”
“We need to be restoring our economy to full health and creating jobs and employing people,” Queen said.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, simply stated that the joint resolution would not go anywhere and that the General Assembly is in the middle of weeding out the good legislation from the bad.
The resolution sprouted out of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. The suit aims to stop the board from opening its meetings with a Christian prayer. Nondenominational prayer is kosher, and can even reference God, but elected officials cannot evoke the name of Jesus Christ specifically.
N.C. Rep. Michell Presnell, R-Burnsville, signed on as a sponsor of the joint resolution, saying it simply gives the Rowan County commissioners the right to continue denominational prayers. Presnell added that by filing a lawsuit, the ACLU is forcing the county to spend “taxpayer money on a very ludicrous thing.”
Rowan County commissioners could have avoided the lawsuit or get it dropped if they switched to nondenominational prayers, but they chose to fight the suit and keep offering specific Christian prayers.
“I will support (Rowan County) 100 percent, and I wish every single county was included” in the resolution, Presnell said. “Individual counties pray in Jesus’ name everyday.”
While the bill references Rowan County’s plight, it also states that the separation of church and state can’t be mandated by the federal government but instead is a matter of state’s rights whether to follow it.
Presnell also claimed that media reports saying the resolution would open the way for the creation of a state religion are untrue.
“That is just liberal media stuff that they do,” she said.