When is student-led school prayer permitted?
When can students at a public school in North Carolina voluntarily and independently pray on school grounds?
A bill introduced recently — and co-sponsored by state Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson — would clarify the instances and situations where prayer at public schools would and wouldn’t be permitted.
Senate Bill 370 would amend a statute that addresses when students in public schools can take part in voluntary prayer.
The current law states: “No local board of education shall have a policy of denying, or that effectively prevents participation in, prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis, except when necessary to maintain order and discipline. No local board of education shall encourage or require any person to participate in prayer or influence the form or content of any prayer in public schools.”
The legislation would make several clarifications:
• A student may pray silently at any time or audibly during noninstructional time, as long as the prayer is voluntary, unofficial and doesn’t interfere with teachers, school activities or other students.
• Prayer officially sanctioned by a school or educational officials isn’t permitted during the school day and prior to, during or after extracurricular school programs, including athletic events.
• Students may gather for prayers before, during or after an extracurricular activity, including interscholastic athletics, if the prayers are initiated and led by students. Also, students voluntarily participating in a prayer can’t pressure other students to participate. School employees supervising extracurricular activities, including coaches, may be present during the prayer as long as it is initiated and led by students.
A spokesman for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the group is monitoring Senate Bill 370, but doesn’t have a position on the legislation.
The courts have given students at public schools fairly wide latitude to pray on their own, when the prayer is voluntary and independent, said Michael Curtis, professor of public and constitutional law at the Wake Forest University School of Law.
Students can have after-school religious clubs where they can pray voluntarily, the professor said. Or students can, before school, gather at a location such as a flagpole to pray as they prepare to begin classes, Curtis said.
“Students are quite free, it seems to me, to engage in their own independent religious activities. If students wish to pray before they have their meals, they can do that,” he said.
What the courts have invalidated are prayers at public school graduation ceremonies and state-composed prayers that students would recite, Curtis said. In general, the courts prohibit prayers when they are led by an educator or adult in a position of authority or take place in a formal school setting.
“The school can’t mandate a prayer, even in a situation when you allow people to be excused. That’s not enough. Or if the prayer is part of a school program where the school sets the program,” Curtis said.
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