By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
Pearl River County supervisors on Monday threw their support behind bills in the State Legislature that would, if passed, provide for voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints and place religious expression on an equal footing with “nonreligious expression” in public schools.
The Senate bill, authored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, encompasses football pre-game prayers, a ritual on Friday nights in Mississippi.
The vote by supervisors was 4-1, supporting the measure. Supervisor Anthony Hales voted against the resolution, saying it would cause endless and costly litigation in the state over the issues involved and would distract schools from the job of teaching students.
But Hales’ opposition and long verbal argument against the motion had little impact on the rest of the board. Supervisor Dennis Dedeaux made the motion for passage of a resolution backing the proposal, and was seconded by Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith, who gave Hales one “Amen” on one point during Hales’ speech against the measure.
Said Hales, “It’s up to the board, of course. I object to it, but the board can do what it wants to do. I am a Christian, and nobody can tell me not to pray to God, if I want to. I don’t have to do it in public, like the Pharisees, where it will end up in court, and someone will have to end up paying a lot of money and get a lot of public attention for nothing.”
Voting yes on Dedeaux’s motion were supervisors J. Patrick Lee, Joyce Culpepper, Dedeaux, and Smith.
The resolution says that the Pearl River County Board of supervisors is in “total agreement that students in public schools be allowed to pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day, in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression.”
The import of the legislation, according to its backers, is to give religious expression in schools the same status and recognition as “nonreligious activities and expressions.”
The board’s resolution will be modeled after one adopted by the Pike County board of supervisors, a copy of which was sent by Pike supervisors to all other 81 county boards throughout Mississippi, including Pearl River County, asking supervisors to contact their legislators, asking them to support the bill, and to adopt a similar resolution of support for the bill. The resolutions will be sent to the governor, lieutenant governor and other selected state officials.
In late January, 17 senators introduced what is being called the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013,” Senate Bill No. 2633, and the bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee, In the House, a similar bill, House Bill No. 72, was introduced by Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, and it was referred to the House Education Committee.
If both bills pass, they will have to go to a House-Senate reconciliation committee. If passed and signed by the governor, the bill would become law July 1 and be in effect during the 2013-14 school year.
In other areas, the Senate bill would allow students to express religious beliefs and viewpoints in school assignments, allow religious students to organize religious groups and activities, and provide that schools would provide a limited public forum for student speakers at nongraduation and graduation events. It’s the “limited public forum” provision that would allow a student to deliver a prayer before a football game.
Opponents of the bill say it will cost Mississippi millions of dollars to defend, because legal challenges are a certainty, and the debate and legal tangles will detract teachers and administrators from their main job: educating students.
Proponents say it’s a freedom of speech issue, that religious expression should have equal status with “nonreligious expressions.”