South Carolina State Rep. Wendell Gilliard wants children to pray in public schools. A bill he has introduced would require teachers to initiate time for prayer every morning.
“The compromise would be to have the students to pray to whomever they want to,” the Charleston Democrat said. “If they want to do away with teachers conducting the prayer that would be fine with us. The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school.”
For those who don’t care to participate, Gilliard has a solution: They can leave the room and wait outside.
Gilliard’s bill, originally introduced early in 2013 and recently re-submitted, has nine co-sponsors, six Democrats and three Republicans. It’s just one of several problematic church-state bills that Americans United is watching this year.
Every year at about this time, Americans United’s Legislative Department gears up for another round of assaults on the church-state wall in state legislatures. Forty-six states are in session in 2014, so tracking all of these bills can be a daunting task, but AU staffers do their best to monitor and respond to every piece of legislation that presents a threat to church-state separation. (The four states not in session are Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.)
Members of the Legislative Department also work to educate state lawmakers, sending them letters opposing measures that would undermine the separation of church and state. In some cases, the department works with AU’s Field Department to mobilize grassroots activists in cases where especially dangerous legislation looks like it might pass.
“State governments have been called the ‘laboratories of democracy,’” said Amrita Singh, Americans United’s state legislative counsel. “But some of the experiments cooked up in those labs can be pretty scary. AU’s goal is to shut them down before anyone’s rights are violated.”
The threats run the gamut. Some proposed legislation attempts to insert mandatory religious practices into public schools. Others would allow the display of sectarian symbols in government facilities or divert taxpayer money to private religious schools through vouchers.
Some legislative proposals are even more extreme. State lawmakers sometimes try to pass bills nullifying specific federal laws or curbing the practice of certain religions (usually Islam).
Many of these measures are of dubious constitutionality. But Americans United would rather stop bad legislation from becoming law than battle it in court later. Working in coalitions with like-minded religious and secular organizations, Americans United is often able to present a united front to shore up the church-state wall from misguided attacks.
Here are some legislative initiatives AU is currently monitoring in the states:
Bills allowing religious displays on public property
Alabama: A constitutional amendment would allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in government buildings, including public schools (HB 45/SB 64).
Georgia: Legislation calls for placing the Ten Commandments on Capitol grounds (HB 702).
Bills celebrating “America’s religious history”
Kansas: A bill would designate a “Celebrate Freedom Week” that critics say is a cover for Religious Right “Christian nation” views (HB 2280).
Virginia: This measure would allow teachers to use “supplemental materials” that purport to support America’s heritage. Such efforts are usually covers for historically inaccurate “Christian nation” propaganda (HB 197).
Bills promoting creationism in public schools and official school prayer
Oklahoma: Legislation would require science teachers to allow students to analyze and critique the “strengths and weaknesses” of certain “scientific theories.” This model legislation, pushed by creationist groups like the Discovery Institute, is a backdoor effort to undermine instruction about evolution in science classes (HB 1674).
Virginia: Legislation identical to the Oklahoma bill has been introduced (HB 207).
Pennsylvania: A state legislator has signaled his intention to introduce the same bill in Pennsylvania. The measure has not been formally introduced and doesn’t yet have a bill number.
South Carolina: Discussed above, a bill would allow for a moment of silent prayer in schools with teacher participation (HB 3526).
“Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination” bills
Oklahoma: This legislation purports to protect public school students’ “religious liberty” rights but is really just a ruse to work mandated forms of prayer and worship into the schools. The Oklahoma measure (SB 1142), would state that schools may not “discriminate against students’ voluntary religious expression in the classroom, as student groups to form prayer groups or ‘See You At The Pole’ events; shall create limited public forums and neutral criteria for selecting religious commencement speakers who may express religious viewpoints.”
Similar legislation is pending in Michigan (HB 4986), New Hampshire (HB 1388/LSR 2343), North Carolina (SB 370) and Pennsylvania (HB 1427).
Vouchers and tuition tax credits
Kansas: This proposal would establish a system of tuition tax credits for students with disabilities. An identical measure passed House and Senate committees last year (SB 22).
South Carolina: Similar to the Kansas proposal, this bill would create tuition tax credits for students with disabilities. Gov. Nikki Haley attempted to add this plan to the state budget last year. It is expected to be pushed as separate legislation this year (SB 866).
Tennessee: A bill that would set up a voucher plan for students in public schools deemed “failing” in Memphis (HB 190) has been introduced.
New Jersey: Gov. Chris Christie is a relentless proponent of vouchers and tried to force a plan into the state budget last year. That attempt failed, and it is expected that Christie will push a voucher plan in the legislature this year.
Legislation designed to protect religious discrimination in university student groups
North Carolina: This measure would prohibit colleges and universities from denying funding to any student-run group based on the members’ religious views. Many colleges have policies that restrict funding only to groups that don’t discriminate and are open to all students. This measure is designed to override those policies and give special treatment to fundamentalist Christian clubs that refuse to admit gay members or members of other faiths. (HB 735/SB 719).
South Carolina: Similar to the North Carolina measure, this bill (SB 472) would create a “Student Association Freedom of Religion Act” that would give preferential treatment to university student groups that discriminate on the basis of religion.
Sweeping “conscience” clauses
Tennessee: This measure would protect college students studying counseling or psychology or social work who refuse to work with gay clients – even though professional counseling standards almost always require that counselors must refrain from this type of discrimination (SB 514/HB 1185).
Michigan: SB 136, a bill that is broader than the Tennessee proposal, would allow health-care professionals to opt out of any service that they say violates their right of conscience.
Alabama: The bill would allow those working in the health-care field to opt out of any medical service related to abortion or contraceptive medical services (HB 31).
Utah: A constitutional amendment would allow religious organizations or associations or individuals connected with religious organizations from solemnizing marriages that violate their consciences. Critics note that this measure – HJR 1 – is unnecessary because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already protects the right of religious organizations to determine their own criteria for marriage ceremonies.
Florida: Originally intended to ban Islamic law, this measure (SB 386) has been amended to state “foreign law,” which many critics say is code language for sharia. A similar bill nearly passed last year.
Missouri: Similar to the Florida bill, this measure bans the application of “foreign laws.” The measure cleared the legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon (SB 619).
Vermont: Bans the application of “foreign laws” in the state (SB 265).
Federal law nullification measures
Missouri: This constitutional amendment would state that Missouri has the power to nullify any federal law deemed to interfere with the state’s interest (including application of church-state separation). Such measures are considered blatantly unconstitutional (SJR 38).
Bills that would “restore” religious freedom
Maine: This bill would create a state “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that opponents say would give religious groups and individuals the right to impose their faith and suppress the rights of others (LD 1428). Similar bills are pending in Ohio (HB 376) and Wisconsin (AJR 43/SJR 38).
The legislative year is just getting started in most states, and more troublesome bills are expected to be filed as the weeks go by. To keep on top of what’s going on in your state, sign up to receive AU’s e-mail action alerts at: www.au.org/content/state-action-center.
At Americans United’s Legislative Action Center, you can also get tips for engaging in political advocacy and learn how to get in touch with national and state officials. Visit the center at: www.au.org/our-work/ legislative.