INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Lawmakers in Indiana are considering a bill that would protect religious expression in public schools, from student prayer to the wearing of religious symbols and messages and the citation of one’s religious beliefs in school assignments.
Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, recently introduced H.B. 1024, which passed the House 83-12 and is now being contemplated by a Senate committee.
“Public school students may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expressions before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression,” it reads in part.
The bill also instructs schools to create a limited public forum at school events so that students who voluntarily speak about their faith may do so freely and without obstruction.
“To ensure that a school corporation 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 school corporation of a student’s expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, a school corporation or charter school 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,” it outlines.
The legislation additionally outlines that students are to be permitted to wear religious symbols or slogans on their clothes or jewelry, and must not be discriminated against for including religious themes in their school assignments.
Bartlett says that the bill will help provide guidance for schools that aren’t sure how to handle expressions of faith on campus.
“A lot of schools are afraid to let students pray because they’re not sure they will be sued. This bill here puts everything in perspective,” he said.
As the legislation was discussed this week by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, student Mary Zakrajsek shared how her pro-life poster had been removed from the walls of Carmel High School while other messages were allowed to be posted.
“When I walk down the hallway, and I see rainbow pride flags and Democrat donkeys, I think that’s pretty clear evidence of ideology that is promoted in public school systems. It became clear that it was our [pro-life] club in particular that was being discriminated against,” she testified, according to the Herald Bulletin.
When the bill was being contemplated by the House Education Committee last month, David W. Greene, Sr., president of the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, told those gathered that prayer can help reduce moral decay among youth.
“I believe that school prayer may cause students to acknowledge a power greater than themselves, on which they can rely for comfort and help in times of trouble,” he stated. “This will lead to decreased reliance on drugs, alcohol, sex and dangerous amusements.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has opposed the legislation, stating that it could have unintended consequences.
“By creating what is called an open forum, that means that schools can’t control what the kids say … if someone stands up at his or her graduation and gives a talk concerning why slavery never should been abolished,” ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk told reporters.
“What this bill says is that the schools cannot control that speech. I don’t think people realize what sort of control schools are surrendering. Once they try to exercise that control by saying, ‘You can have this kind of speech but you can’t have that kind of speech,’ that’s when the constitutional problem arises,” he said.
A recent poll on WISH-TV shows that 49 percent of respondents believe prayer should be allowed in school, while 47 percent believe it should be prohibited. Two percent said they were unsure.