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Students' right to pray reaffirmed by Senate committee

Posted May 8, 2013 12:56 p.m. EDT
Updated May 8, 2013 6:17 p.m. EDT

— Legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee reaffirms that students can pray in public schools, a right that some lawmakers and others say is being curtailed by teachers confused by the law.

Senate Bill 370 would allow students to pray silently at any time or out loud during non-instructional time as long as the prayer is initiated by students – not teachers or staff – and nobody is forced to participate. Also, any school employees present during a student prayer would be encouraged to "adopt a respectful posture."

"Teachers and the schools don't really understand current law. That's the problem," said Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba. "They're telling students they can't talk about God or anything else that's religious."

Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, agreed that teachers, because of ignorance or "base motives," sometimes "intimidate students into silence or inaction on matters of faith."

"They've either directly told them or given them the impression that schools are supposed to be completely God-free or religion-free zones," Creech said, adding the legislation could help embolden students against being "bullied into suppressing their expressions of faith."

Prayer can inspire students to succeed and provide comfort during difficult times, he said in praising the bill.

Some parents said they bill sounds redundant because it primarily restates current law.

"I'm not against it. It's just not necessary," said Dan Jemiolo, whose daughter isn't yet old enough to attend school.

"It's supposed to get people riled up and feel like they want to contribute money to the people who are fighting hard for their ability to pray in school, but that right has never been a problem," Jemiolo said.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, called the proposal a waste of time and money.

"It does nothing except cost money to prepare the bill (and) costs time for our staff," said Kinnaird, who isn't a member of the committee. "But (sponsors) will get a lot of press at home."

Sponsor Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, said the law needs to be clarified, pointing to instances where coaches weren't allowed to stay when a group of athletes were praying.

"What this bill does (is) it codifies what current case law is, and it creates more certainty in the school system so that you don't have different treatments," Daniel said.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, asked whether language in the bill would allow a student to stand up and pray during a school assembly in response to other students speaking on non-religious topics.

Sponsors said that wouldn't occur because the measure precludes any disruption of school curriculum.

"If that action is deemed disruptive to the learning process, whether they're praying or standing there doing hand signals or whatever, they may be removed from the classroom. They may even be suspended from school," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the committee chairman and a retired school administrator.

"Whatever they're doing must not disrupt the learning process," Tillman said. "It's got to be done in a civil and obedient and meditative spirit."

Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said school boards statewide were comfortable with much of the proposal, but officials are still working through language in the bill with sponsors on resolving grievances and the prohibition against school employees leading prayers.

The bill passed on a voice vote and now heads to the Senate floor.