Indiana lawmakers introduce bills calling for more religion in the public square

Wednesday, February 10, 1999

Lawmakers in Indiana's lower legislative house have introduced bills they argue would grant greater protection for religion in the public square from government intrusion.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union, the state affiliate for the ACLU, however, describes the Assembly bills as an attempt to flout the First Amendment and the Constitution.

One of the more troubling bills according to the ICLU is one that calls for all public schools to offer elective courses on the Bible. This bill, introduced late last month by Republican Rep. Woody Burton, brother of U.S. Rep. Richard Burton, R-Ind., would require all public schools starting in 2001 to offer “elective high school instruction” in “the history of the Bible.” The bill would require the elective courses to focus on the Bible's influence in history and literature.

John Krull, ICLU executive director, said that Burton's Bible bill could be seen as a state endorsement of Christianity.

“If that bill does not establish a state religion, it comes perilously close to doing so,” Krull said. “As a parent, I have a problem with letting the school teach my child religion. That is my job and my church's job.”

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp that the Bible may be taught “objectively as part of a secular program of education.” The high court, however, noted that the Bible could not be used to advance religious beliefs. Last year, a federal judge in Florida invalidated a Bible history course that would have included the New Testament as its text. In striking down the course in Gibson v. Lee County, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich said that it was inconceivable that certain stories in the New Testament “could be taught as secular history.”

Burton's bill is pending in the state House Committee on Education.

Indiana lawmakers also introduced bills that would pave the way for prayer in the public schools and the placing of the Ten Commandments in government buildings.

Democratic Rep. Jerry Denbo introduced a bill that would authorize the display of the Ten Commandments on all state property. The bill, which is pending in the House Committee on Public Policy, Ethics and Veterans, “would probably violate the separation of church and state,” Krull said.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in its 1980 ruling in Stone v. Graham that a Kentucky law authorizing the posting of the religious codes in the state's public schoolrooms did run afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The high court noted that “the Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact.”

Despite the fact that the high court has stated that children in public schools are free to pray on their own, Democratic Rep. Gary Cook is urging the Assembly to pass a law that would require students to participate in a “period of silent reflection” during the school day. The bill states that each public school “shall establish a period of thoughtful, quiet reflection at the beginning of each school day to enable students to reflect on the activities of the day.” Moreover, the bill requires that all public students “shall participate in the period of quiet reflection.”

Several states have “moment of silence” laws and not all have been found unconstitutional. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama's law in Wallace v. Jaffree, concluding that the Legislature's only purpose for enacting the bill was to endorse religion. Other federal districts, like the 11th U.S. Circuit, have found that “moment of silence” laws could be constitutional if enacted for secular purposes, don't advance a particular religion and don't create an excessive entanglement between church and state.

Krull says that if the intent of the Indiana Assembly is to promote prayer in schools, then the bill will be challenged in court. “This bill basically creates a moment of prayer without saying that is what it is doing,” he said. “Bills like this are frequently introduced by those who claim that the Supreme Court barred prayer in public schools. I went to a public high school and prayed all the time – generally before math tests. What we are talking about in this case is a bill that would ensure compulsory prayer; and again as a parent, I resent that. I don't want some state official determining to what god if any my child should pray.”

Conservative religious groups, however, have continued to call on state lawmakers to enact legislation that would set aside time for prayer during the school day. Allen Wildmon, director of public relations at the Mississippi-based American Family Association, staunchly defends “moment of silence” laws as ways to curb violence and drug use in public schools. According to Wildmon, brother of association president Donald, public schools nationwide have come to recognize that “taking time for quiet reflection is a means of more or less calming students down, and many can use a mind-relaxing break.”

Cook's quiet-reflection bill is pending in the House Committee on Education.