March 17, 2017

Bill to protect religious liberty in schools advances in Senate

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A bill to strengthen and clarify students’ ability to pray in Indiana public schools advanced to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee on March 8, and is expected to pass the Senate committee by St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the legislation.

House Bill 1024, authored by Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, aims to ensure the religious freedom of students in public schools. Under the proposal, students would be able to express their religious beliefs in their homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments. If the measure passed, students would be permitted to pray or engage in religious activities or expressions before, during and after the school day. The bill would allow students to wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display religious messages or symbols.

The legislation directs the State Department of Education, in collaboration with the attorney general’s office and organizations with expertise in religious civil liberties, to establish a model policy for all schools. The bill would permit, but not require, school corporations to offer electives on world religions.

“House Bill 1024 only puts prayer back into schools. It does not mandate or force students to participate in it,” said Bartlett. “It is giving Hoosiers the ability to express their faith without fearing discrimination.

“It also brings clarification to the First Amendment which allows people to practice their faith. However, it restricts you from forcing your faith on others.”

In addition to protecting the First Amendment right to pray in school, Bartlett shared his concern with discipline problems in the public school during the Senate hearing. Citing a book written by William H. Jeynes called A Call for Character Education and Prayer in the Schools, Bartlett noted the alarming changes in student discipline and behavior problems since 1962 when prayer was removed from schools.

Teachers surveyed in 1962 reported the top discipline problems among their students were talking, chewing gum or leaving trash on the floor. Today, teachers report their main student behavior problems include drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery and assault.

Bartlett said a recent report by the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration indicated that 1,000 teachers per month are assaulted by students, requiring the injured teacher to seek medical attention or hospitalization.

“I think we need to get prayer back in school and allow our students to pray,” Bartlett said.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, who serves as the public policy spokesperson for the bishops in Indiana, testified in support of the bill. “We appreciate Rep. Bartlett bringing forward a bill that affirms faith and one’s expression of it in an appropriate manner. The Church teaches that exercising one’s rights always comes with responsibilities when exercising it.”

Tebbe noted that while case law sets out the parameters in this arena, implementing the principles in a concrete way in a school setting requires prudence and guidance. He added that he expects this bill to help school officials in this important responsibility.

“Affirmation of religious rights in Indiana code should help in protecting them, and also assist school officials in implementing best practices that affirm students and protect the constitutional rights of all involved,” said Tebbe.

Eric Miller, an attorney and founder of Advance America, an Indianapolis-based family and religious advocacy organization, said legislation like this could prevent future instances of the situation that occurred at Carmel High School in Carmel, Ind., where a pro-life student group was forced to remove a sign which had been pre-approved by the administration, but taken down because its pro-life message was deemed offensive by another student.

Mary Carmen, president of Carmel Teens for Life, who is a senior at Carmel High School and a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, testified in support of the bill. She echoed Miller, saying if a bill like House Bill 1024 had been in place, students’ First Amendment rights would have been protected, and the sign not removed.

Several individual citizens testified in opposition to the bill, raising concerns that House Bill 1024 could give students of a majority religion the potential to discriminate against students of a minority religion. Opponents also argued the legislation is unnecessary since the First Amendment right to exercise one’s religion is already protected.

Ryan McCann, director of operations and public policy for the Indiana Family Institute, said House Bill 1024 sets out a neutral guideline for schools so that all students are free to exercise their faith.

McCann said that school officials are so afraid of being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, thereby diminishing students’ ability to freely exercise their faith at school.

House Bill 1024 received bipartisan support, and passed the Indiana House by an 83-12 vote on Feb. 27. Tebbe said he expects the Senate panel to approve the bill by March 17, and to move to the Senate floor for consideration before the end of the month.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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