Jackson, Mississippi — The state legislature of Mississippi has voted to approve a bill that seeks to protect the rights of students to practice and express their faith in the public school system.
“The Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013” was introduced by Representative Mark Formby, a Republican, who has attempted to pass similar measures since 2009.
“It will allow children on a voluntary basis to pray or not to pray,” he told reporters.
However, the bill, which recently passed the House 108-6, not only seeks to ensure that children are allowed to engage in voluntary prayer at school, but it also mandates that other student rights are preserved, such as the expression of religious beliefs in classroom assignments. Students who wear clothing or jewelry containing religious symbols or sayings will now be protected as well.
While some applaud the measure, some state that it is unnecessary as voluntary school prayer and the right to personal faith in the classroom has already been upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
“Students are allowed to pray in school. No one has ever taken that right away from them. What public schools can’t do is force everyone to say a prayer over the loudspeaker, at a football game, at an assembly, etc.,” stated atheist writer Hemant Mehta. “So you have to wonder why Senate Bill 2633 in Mississippi is even necessary.”
Formby said that the law is needed because students continue to have their rights trampled.
“I keep having parents come to me and complain,” he explained. “This would give clarity to the law.”
In addition to allowing general free expression of religion, the bill protects the rights of students to pray at graduations, football games and other school events. The prayers will be either prefaced or followed by the disclaimer that the benedictions are not necessarily an endorsement by the school.
“To ensure that the school district does not discriminate against a student’s publicly stated voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, and to eliminate any actual or perceived affirmative school sponsorship or attribution to the district of a student’s expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, a school district shall adopt a policy, which must include the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak,” the bill outlines.
But Mehta says that the law will require atheist students to have to listen to prayers against their will.
“Since Christians are in the majority in the state, this means students of minority faiths — and no faith — would be subject to hearing Christian prayers at just about all school functions,” he noted.
The right to pray in school continues to be an issue for a number of students across the country, who have been prevented from expressing their beliefs to their peers. As previously reported, an eighth grade student in Craryville, New York is fighting a battle in federal court after she was informed that she could not ask God to bless her fellow students during a graduation speech.
“As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the Lord bless you and keep you, make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you, lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace,” the student’s speech was to have read.
School officials told the eighth grader that the section of her speech “sounded too religious” and asked her to nix it from the address.
However, in Mississippi, such battles should now be minimized. Governor Phil Bryant is expected to sign the legislation into law at any time.
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