One of the first bills of Indiana’s new legislative session will be one that surely stirs up a strong response, some for and some against. It’s also one that some are saying will never be enacted. The bill would require students to start the school day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
The push to bring religion into schools is not a new move for the bill’s author, State Senator Dennis Kruse. In the last legislative session he introduced a bill that would allow creationism to be taught in public schools. Kruse’s hope with that bill was to get students to question teachers’ lessons on evolution. He hoped students would ask their teachers to produce evidence to support what they were teaching. Earlier in his career, he introduced legislation that would remove language on evolution from the state’s science standards. None of his bills were enacted and all died quickly. But will this new bill actually get signed into law?
Legal scholars don’t think so. They believe that, although there’s a Republican majority in Indiana’s statehouse and in the governor’s seat, the bill won’t likely come to a vote. And even if it were to be signed into law, it would face many challenges on constitutional grounds. In fact, the language in this bill is nearly identical to a much older case from neighboring Illinois, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on more than sixty years ago.
Language in the current bill states:
“A student is exempt from participation in the prayer if (1) the student chooses not to participate; or (2) the student’s parent chooses to have the student not participate.”
In the earlier case in Illinois, McCollum v. Board of Education, the court ruled in favor of Vashti McCollum, who sued the Champaign public schools because she did not want her son being subjected to ridicule after she would not give permission to participate in the school’s religion class. She didn’t give permission after she saw the materials that were going to be taught. They weren’t against her religion. The fact was, she didn’t believe in God. She was an atheist.
The class was voluntary and the alternative was to participate in other secular activities. In reality, while his classmates took part in the school-sanctioned religion class, her son was forced to sit in a desk in the hallway…in the same place students went when they misbehaved.
The case lasted three years, with each court ruling against her. In 1947, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court where she received a positive result. The court ruled for her, in an 8-1 decision. The court found that the district had violated the separation of church and state clause. It said that the First and Fourteenth Amendment had been violated, and that publicly funded schools must not allow for the teaching of religion. McCollum felt relieved and pleased with the result. She had endured three long years battling not only the court case, but also the hate mail and phone calls threatening her life.
This landmark case will surely be the basis of any lawsuit in Indiana if Kruse’s bill gets signed into law. The Kruse bill would not only tie up courts with lawsuits throughout the state, but it would likely cost school districts precious money defending the law. In times when funds are tight, this could have a devastating effect. If Kruse wants to make a point, perhaps he should do it by writing an op-ed in his local newspaper; less costly than introducing a bill that everyone knows is unconstitutional.