Government Endorsed Religion in State Bills

Several bills moved in state legislatures last week that encourage government-sanctioned prayer under the guise of “protecting” religious freedoms. In reality, these bills merely make it easier to evangelize to captive audiences in a government setting.

Virginia Senate Bill 555

Two of these bills passed in the Virginia legislature, aimed at military chaplains and public school students. SB 555 would allow chaplains of the Virginia National Guard to offer sectarian prayer and proselytize National Guard soldiers. Of course, chaplains in the military can already accommodate the soldiers’ voluntary religious practice, but this bill would let them go too far and proselytize at events with mandatory attendance, making them a captive audience.

Clergy should never be able to subject service members to unwanted coercion to participate in religious services and activities. Roughly one-third of the U.S. military identifies as non-Christian, so chaplains have a responsibility to be inclusive and considerate when at mandatory events. AU submitted a letter to Governor McAuliffe urging him to veto this bill.

Virginia Senate Bill 236

Similarly, SB 236 would allow students to offer prayers at school sponsored events intended for all students – such as football games and graduation ceremonies. Many kids attending these public school events, therefore, would be made to feel excluded and uncomfortable simply because their religion does not match that of the prayer. As a result, the school gives the impression it is favoring some religious faiths over others, and endorsing religion over non-religion.

This bill isn’t needed in the first place. Students already have the right to engage in student-initiated, voluntary prayer, making this bill pointlessly harmful. Fortunately, Governor McAuliffe agrees. AU sent a letter encouraging him to veto this bill, and he has already stated he plans to.

Tennessee House Bill 1547

The Tennessee legislature is considering a similar bill, HB 1547, which would permit unconstitutional prayer in public schools. Just like Virginia’s bill, it would allow prayers at school-sponsored events. It also gives students the right to engage in religious expression at all times in the public school classroom – something that is completely unnecessary to clarify, because students can already do so as long as it does not disrupt the school’s educational mission and activities. These bills are protecting rights that are already well protected, leading one to believe its intent behind the bill is really to insert more religion in public schools. AU submitted a letter opposing this bill, but the Tennessee House passed it earlier this week.

Americans United strongly supports the right of students and military chaplains to engage in free speech activities, but this legislation would result in government-sanctioned religious speech that is both inappropriate and unconstitutional. To hear about what is happening in your state, sign up for AU action alerts!