More states consider bills calling for patriotism, prayer in school

Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Lawmakers in Delaware and Arizona are moving closer to approving bills that they argue will instill a greater sense of spirituality and patriotism among public school students.

Last week the Delaware Senate unanimously passed a bill that lists a host of do’s and don’ts for public school officials to adhere to when dealing with students and their religious beliefs.

Senate Bill 229, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. David P. Sokola, states that “many prominent clergymembers have expressed the belief that an increase in the presence of religion in our public schools may have a positive impact on the problems of disorder and violence.”

Following the preamble, the bill states, “No employee of any Delaware public school shall interfere” with individual or group prayer during “any portion of the school day that is made available for non-religious student groups to meet.” The bill, furthermore, prohibits any school official from barring individual students from praying before tests, meals, or from wearing religious garb on school grounds and says that a “brief period of silence” may be observed by students for their religious expression each morning.

Much of what the bill outlines as protected by the First Amendment has also been noted in guidelines that President Clinton and the secretary of education issued nationwide to public schools. Those guidelines, which the First Amendment Center helped prepare, note that “schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature.”

Sokola, in a prepared statement, said the bill was needed to help clarify judicial decisions regarding the separation of church and state. “Our children are not in a religious-free zone when they are in school,” he said. “Their beliefs need to be respected, too.”

Richard Puffer, legislative aide to Sokola, said there has been “a misconception, especially from teachers, as to what they can and cannot do” regarding student religious expressions at school. Puffer says the bill has support in the state House and that the governor and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware support the bill.

Judith Mellen, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, said her group supported Sokola’s bill because it “simply codifies what children can do in schools.”

“Individual religious activity, as long as it does not intrude on studies and is not mandatory, is the right of students and always has been,” Mellen said. “But that understanding has been lost in the sometimes elevated rhetoric that surrounds the issue.”

Sokola’s bill is now pending in the General Assembly’s House Education Committee.

Following the lead of a number of states, most recently Utah, the Arizona Legislature is considering a bill that would require elementary school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning.

As expected, Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt approved the “Patriotic Education Act” last week. On March 13, the governor signed the bill, which mandates that the Pledge of Allegiance must be recited by all public school students and those who don’t wish to must receive written parental consent.

According to Arizona Senate Bill 1216, which was approved by a House committee last week, all public schools are to provide “guidance for the teaching of moral, civic and ethical education.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1943 decision said public school students who objected to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on religious grounds could not be forced to do so by school officials. The high court in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette invalidated a state law requiring students to recite the pledge daily or face suspension.

“There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or the nature or origin of its authority,” Justice Robert Jackson wrote. “We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill or Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. We think the action of local authorities in compelling the flag and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their powers and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”

Republican state Rep. Linda Gray lauded the House committee for approving the bill, saying, “It’s time we got back to the roots of what our Founding Fathers wanted for our country.”

The bill still needs approval by the full House before the Arizona Senate votes on it.