By Sid Salter/Syndicated columnist
The Picayune Item
STARKVILLE, Miss. —
After Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill that could lead to public prayers by students at functions like graduation, sporting events, or even over the school’s intercom, I couldn’t escape memories of my childhood.
My late father was a high school principal and vocational agriculture teacher in rural Mississippi from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, a Southern Baptist, and a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Normandy Invasion in World War II.
At school assembly programs or sporting events he led, two preliminary activities preceded the main event — first, a prayer, and second, either a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the National Anthem, or both. Students were not required to pray or to pledge, but they were required to maintain decorum while others did.
Those students who deviated from the rules of decorum during those preliminaries saw the order of events altered to include prayer, patriotism and the addition of corporal punishment. As it was available in the communities he served, Dad also engaged in what he believed was an exercise in religious diversity. He would alternately ask local Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal ministers to deliver those prayers.
After school integration was implemented in the latter days of his career in public education, Dad widened the circle of ministers invited to offer those prayers to include African American ministers of those same basically Protestant or evangelical faiths.
Such was life in Mississippi public schools in that era. Such was life in the vast majority of the nation in that era. But those days were changed by a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning in the early 1960s and continuing into the 1970s that saw religious expression in public schools limited.
My dad retired before those cultural changes came about — particularly the Lemon case, which established a “test” of sorts for laws impacting questions of the separation of church and state. In the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, Chief Justice Warren Burger enunciated his “Lemon test” as follows: First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
To address those issues, the new Mississippi law — and others like it around the country — features language requiring that state school districts adopt a policy to allow a “limited public forum” at school events such as football games or morning announcements for students to express religious beliefs. The policy must include a disclaimer that such student speech “does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district.”
The question then becomes one of exactly what kinds of prayers the new law would allow to be expressed in this “limited public forum.” Does the law allow school-sanctioned public student expressions of basically Protestant or evangelical prayers and religious beliefs, or does it broadly allow Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other faiths to have equal expression? What about paganism? Atheism? Agnosticism?
Will Mississippi communities, particularly those with dominant Protestant or evangelical majorities, be able to handle that? If so, it will require a far greater level of tolerance for minority religious faiths and for non-believers than I ever saw practiced during my childhood when diversity meant asking the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Pentecostal ministers to share the microphone during an average football season of pre-game prayers.
Win, lose or draw in court, the new law is intensely popular with the majority of Mississippians. Yet for my fellow Methodist Gov. Bryant and the mostly Protestant or evangelical Mississippi legislative majority that passed Senate Bill 2633, the Lemon test may ultimately determine whether the new law passes constitutional muster when opponents almost certainly file suits seeking to challenge the law.
The specific legal battle and the larger cultural war will continue to rage. I think my father understood the dilemma in his day. He often repeated that old canard about school prayer — bent slightly to his own observances: “As long as there are algebra tests and cheerleader try-outs, there will always be prayer in schools.”
(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org)