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Prayer-Around-the-Flagpole Bill Passes Senate

Tennessee senators gave nearly unanimous support Thursday to legislation allowing teachers to participate in student-initiated religious activities on school grounds before or after the instructional day.

The House version of the bill passed several weeks ago with all ayes. Now it heads to the governor’s desk.

Dickson Republican Jim Summerville, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said the bill is probably redundant, adding “superfluous language” to the code, and that it simply affirms teachers’ First Amendment rights.

Rep. Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram, brought the bill in response to restrictions imposed by the Cheatham County Board of Education after it reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. In its lawsuit, the ACLU said a planned prayer had taken place at a graduation ceremony and that Gideons International had been allowed to distribute Bibles during classes.

An attorney who represented the school board in that case has said that this bill, and others like it, would change nothing about that agreement.

In the Senate Thursday, the lone nay came from Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis. Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, was in the chamber but declined to vote either way. Whether the bill makes any significant change to the current law, Marrero said her vote was a matter of principle.

“I really do believe that we should take our children to the religious institution of our choice on Sunday and that we should guide them in religious instruction in their home,” she said. “But I don’t think that our teachers should be involved in religious instruction of our children.”

Marrero also expressed concern for students who might feel left out if  teachers aligns themselves with students of a certain denomination or religion.

ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg told TNReport in an email that the bill was “unnecessary, overreaching and irresponsible.”

“County school boards are charged with ensuring that students from all faiths can make religious decisions with their families and faith communities, free from fear of coercion by school officials,” she said. “Under the First Amendment, public school staff already have the right to practice their religion, so long as they do it in a way that does not influence students. Therefore, the only purpose for this bill is to open a door to allow school personnel to practice religion in a way that does influence students.”

Weinberg also cited another Tennessee case, Doe v. Wilson County School System, in which Judge Robert Echols wrote, of a National Day of Prayer event, that “young students and their parents understandably could have thought that the teachers and school principal were present as representatives of the school and as such their actions were an endorsement of the religious event.”

Summerville, however, reiterated the bill’s language, which states that such activities must be initiated by students and must not conflict with the “responsibilities or assignments” of school personnel.