JOHNSON: An Amendment To The School Prayer Bill Stopped What Could Have Been A Setback To Religious Freedom

Some of Louisiana’s most honorable leaders took to the House Floor in Baton Rouge today—in a strong showing of bipartisan leadership—to amend and correct a school prayer bill that could have been very harmful to the cause of religious liberty in our state and beyond.

After America’s top Christian religious liberty defense organizations and experts explained the inadvisable and counterproductive nature of La. SB 512 (see Kevin Boyd’s May 9 post on our previous objections), principled leaders such as State Representatives Rick Edmonds, Alan Seabaugh and Katrina Jackson, among others, sought our counsel on how best to navigate through the current situation to reach a favorable resolution and pass a school prayer bill that can actually be upheld by reviewing courts, help to resolve the current concerns and confusion of teachers and coaches, and positively advance the cause of religious freedom in public schools.

The result was the Edmonds Amendment, which was introduced this afternoon on the House Floor, and passed with a landslide majority over the objection of the bill author, Sen. Ryan Gatti. That amendment stripped the original, blatantly unconstitutional language of SB 512, and replaced it entirely with new language that should pass court muster and help solve the current problem. After the Edmonds Amendment corrected the bill, it passed the House 99-0.

For those who have been following this saga, to answer your questions, here is how the Edmonds Amendment has solved the crisis:

While many Americans disagree with the prohibition against school-sponsored and teacher-led prayers during school hours, the issue has unfortunately been concretely settled by federal courts for decades. However, at the same time, the courts have repeatedly affirmed that student-led, student-initiated prayers ARE fully protected by the Constitution.

Still, there exists widespread confusion about certain aspects of student religious expression—especially how it should be monitored by school officials. Following court precedent, Louisiana statutes currently provide that “[a] school employee may be assigned to supervise [a student prayer] gathering [during school hours] if such supervision is also requested by the student or students and the school employee volunteers to supervise the gathering.” R.S. 17:2115.11(A). However, because the existing statute does not specifically address the issue, some confusion has arisen regarding whether or not a supervising school employee may respectfully bow his or her own head during the students’ prayers.

The Edmonds Amendment simply added the following very important clarifying language to the end of that existing statute section:

“If a school employee present to supervise the gathering chooses, he or she may quietly bow his or her head during a student-led, student-initiated prayer so the employee may treat the students’ religious beliefs and practices with deference and respect.”

The wisdom of the Edmonds Amendment is that it resolves much of the current controversy and ambiguity, and still carefully adheres to the applicable court decisions (and thus does not risk setting a terrible new court precedent, jeopardizing our existing helpful statutes, and padding the pockets of atheist groups with attorney fees paid by taxpayers). Indeed, much of the language of this amendment is taken directly from Doe v. Duncanville Indep. Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1996). In that case, which affirmed a lower court ruling prohibiting a coach from leading, encouraging and openly participating in prayers with his student athletes, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (which covers Louisiana, Texas & Mississippi) stated in relevant part (emphasis added):

“However, we note that neither the Establishment Clause nor the district court’s order prevent DISD employees from treating students’ religious beliefs and practices with deference and respect; indeed, the Constitution requires this. Nothing compels DISD employees to make their non-participation vehemently obvious or to leave the room when students pray… However, if while acting in their official capacities, DISD employees join hands in a prayer circle or otherwise manifest approval and solidarity with student religious exercises, they cross the line between respect for religion and endorsement of religion.”

In a concurring opinion, one of the judges on the Duncanville appeals court panel wrote:

“The federal courts … may not reach into the minds of individual teachers to prescribe their responses to student-initiated prayers….[No] federal court in the United States of America may insist upon a purge of the teachers’ spiritual response to student prayers.”

By adding simple language to R.S. 17:2115.11(A) to codify this commonsense reasoning by the Fifth Circuit, the Edmonds Amendment put SB 512 in a posture to add valuable clarity for school officials who are acting in good faith. Because the simple and subtle act of a supervising teacher quietly bowing his or her head in these scenarios should not be interpreted by any reasonable observer as an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion, the updated statute should be expected to pass court muster if ever challenged.

For these reasons, the Edmonds Amendment today provided a helpful, fully constitutional solution that all members could enthusiastically support. Now the bill goes back to the Senate for concurrence in the CORRECTED and REWRITTEN bill that passed the House unanimously today.

Every student, parent, educator and citizen of this state who cares about the survival and expansion of our fundamental rights to religious freedom and the influence of religion on public school campuses should wholeheartedly support the NEW version of SB 512.

And we should also express our sincere thanks to those courageous legislators in the Louisiana House—both Republican and Democrat—who withstood tremendous pressure and false information to do the right thing and fix this bill. (For all the bill details, see this link.)

Many of us wish we could return to the days in America when teachers openly led their classes in prayer. The loss of those traditions has clearly had a negative effect on our society and succeeding generations. Indeed, many of us have given our entire adult lives and careers to the cause of preserving the freedoms we still have, and restoring the freedoms we’ve lost. The way we do that in an effective manner that honors the God whom we serve is to act with wisdom and to advance that cause in a lawful manner, within the greatest constitutional system of government ever created. Jesus taught us to “render unto Caesar,” but serve God alone. The way to advance this cause is to continue to pray (2 Chron. 7:14), to continue fighting yard by yard to regain the field, and to continue to vote for Presidents who fear the Lord enough to appoint constitutional conservatives as federal court judges to begin to turn the tide. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, we’ll be a nation gone under.”

God bless America.

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