Raleigh, N.C. — The House Education Committee voted Tuesday for a bill that allows school faculty to participate in student-led prayer, even though similar laws have been struck down elsewhere.
Senate Bill 370, Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Activity, passed the Senate unanimously in May 2013 but has not been heard yet in the House.
Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, said it was prompted by a McDowell County student who was not allowed to read a poem she wrote about her grandfather at a school Veteran's Day program because the poem talked about his faith.
“It was censored by school administrators,” Daniel said. “Can you imagine how this child felt?”
He said there have also been problems with coaches "being advised they may not be present when student-athletes gathered to pray."
The bill allows that “faculty may be present and may adopt a respectful posture” during student-led prayer. Daniel said the provision would guarantee statewide consistency.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said he supports the bill overall but warned the committee that the provision saying faculty "may adopt a respectful posture" has already been struck down by federal appellate courts in two different parts of the country.
The rulings said the "respectful posture" clause "gets into the entanglement issue under the First Amendment when you have teachers participating in a way that crosses the line and endorses the practice,“ Glazier explained. “A respectful display is permissible, but only where it doesn’t cross the line."
A constitutional law professor, he offered an amendment to strike the phrase from the bill.
"We ought not be passing provisions that we know have case law out there declaring them unconstitutional,” he said. "We’re setting ourselves up, under existing case law, to be sued. I think we have an oath to the taxpayers that we’re on point."
Daniel, an attorney, spoke against the amendment. "It’s a sad day in America when we can’t tell a coach they can bow their head when a student is leading a prayer," he said.
“It breaks my heart that we’re at the point in American history where we need a bill,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven. “Anything about separation of church and state, all that stuff, it’s not even in the Constitution. We need to remember what principles this country was founded on.”
Rep, Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, also spoke against Glazier's amendment.
“We live in a society where there is an all-out assault on God in the public square," Jones said. "People will file lawsuits regardless what we do."
Glazier's amendment was voted down 28-11.
The bill passed the committee easily and could be on the House floor later this week.