March 7, 2013 10:03:56 AM
JACKSON -- The House has sent a bill to Gov. Phil Bryant that could legalize student prayer before school audiences.
Senate Bill 2633 is also meant to guarantee religious freedom in Mississippi public schools, ensuring students can talk about spiritual beliefs and not be deprived of their rights.
The House voted 108-6 for final passage of the bill Wednesday without debate.
The measure would guarantee student rights to talk about faith in class and allow them to organize religious clubs. Sponsors, in legislative debate, have said teachers and school administrators are confused about what religious expression is legal, and that the state needs a law to keep schools from wrongly suppressing religion.
But the proposal, modeled in part on a law passed in Texas, would also create a path to allow students to pray at football games and graduations and during morning announcements.
It suggests naming such events as "limited public forums."
The proposal sets out a model policy districts could adopt, specifying that certain groups of students would be allowed to speak on such occasions. Students could pray, or not, and the school would state it's not responsible for student actions.
Both proponents and opponents of the proposed law say organized school prayer remains widespread in Mississippi, despite opponents' efforts to curtail it. In October, for example, the ACLU sent a letter to the Lincoln County school system demanding a halt to routine prayer at West Lincoln High School.
Bear Atwood, interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, has said this bill could force students to listen to someone else's religious expression. She said that's the same problem that led judges to strike down a previous Mississippi law allowing student-led prayer.
Proponents, including radio host Paul Ott, say they think returning prayer to public schools would help reduce discipline problems and bullying.