New School Prayer Law in Mississippi
by Damon Huss
Today, a law called the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013” goes into effect. Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi signed the bill into law in March of this year. The law has an anti-discriminatory purpose, which is to restrain public schools from discriminating “against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.” The full text of the law is available here.
Perhaps the most notable provision concerns “the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak.” A “limited public forum” is a legal term that designates a public forum in which government cannot restrict the subject of speech or who the speaker is, unless the government has a compelling reason to do so.
For example, the new law specifically addresses religious speech in graduation ceremonies:
The school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject. [more]
Moreover, the law directs schools to include a written disclaimer in every graduation program. The disclaimer states that the student speaker was chosen according to “neutral criteria,” and that the student’s speech is “private expression” of the student and does not reflect the views of the school or administration.
Other provisions allow additional student expression. Students may freely “express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments.” They must also be allowed to “pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression 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 will be interesting to keep an eye on what may come. The civil-libertarian ACLU of Mississippi is expected to challenge the new law’s constitutionality in court, now that it has taken effect. Liberty Counsel, a non-profit legal advocacy and Christian ministry group, has pledged pro bono legal help in defending the state’s law.
As you follow this story, visit the web site of the First Amendment Center for news and information. CRF also maintains the web site and program activity of the California Three Rs Project, which serves to inform all stakeholders in public schools about First Amendment issues.