North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill into law this past week that permits student-led prayer in the state’s schools. There are several other provisions in the three-page law such as student’s rights to discuss religious views, write about their religious beliefs in assignments without censorship, and more. Students exercising these rights are forbidden from interrupting the learning process or harassing fellow students who do not wish to participate with them.
My first reaction is there remains a lot of confusion about the place and exercise of religion in the public school system. Since the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), there has been much misunderstanding either because of ignorance of the ruling or lack of verbal comprehension.
Before commenting further I think it is necessary to quote the wording that is at issue, it is the Establishment Clause, immediately followed by the Free Exercise Clause, of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Court ruled in the above case that for a government employee, such as a teacher, to read the Bible to their students or lead them in prayer is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Nothing in the Court’s decision prevents the free exercise of religion of a school employee, or student. During his or her free time a teacher is at liberty to read the Bible and pray, or give thanks to God before eating a meal, or to discuss is or her faith when it arises in a discussion. The same holds true for students.
Contrary to widespread opinion Bible reading and prayer have not been taken out of the public school system or outlawed. More freedoms are lost through failure to exercise them than have ever been lost to legislation or judicial fiat.
This new law in North Carolina, while well intended, may add to the confusion and does nothing to secure the right to free exercise of our faith already granted by the First Amendment. A state statute cannot take away or add to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the United States Constitution; it’s that simple.
Advocates of religious freedom are rejoicing over the recent developments and hope the other forty-nine states will climb on the bandwagon and adopt similar laws. But more laws will not afford more protection than what we already have.
Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you,” Matthew 6:6. Winning concessions in the public arena over needless legislation will do little to turn our nation to God, and distracts us from exercising our most powerful asset, private prayer. It is what we do in private that bolsters our witness in public.