Rep. Matt Gaetz's "Prayer in School" bill is an unconstitutional hot mess
It's not about protecting religious freedom. It's about permitting religious coercion.
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Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) plans to introduce a bill today called the “National Prayer in School Act” that he claims will allow students and teachers to pray in school without consequences.
That’s a bizarre claims since students and teachers who want to pray in school can already do that. No one’s stopping them. It’s only when there’s coercion or harassment involved that there’s ever any problem.
What Gaetz wants to do is legalize religious coercion and harassment in schools—religious freedom be damned.
Gaetz told the right-wing Daily Caller website that this legislation was meant to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling in last year’s Bremerton case when a high school football coach conducted attention-seeking prayers at midfield after games. While the prayers were indeed coercive, the Supreme Court ignored that fact and insisted what Joe Kennedy was doing was legal.
This bill is meant to give people like Kennedy—who, as public school employees, work for the government—even more leeway to push their faith on others.
“God’s reach does not stop at the schoolhouse gates. Our country’s education policy forbids students and faculty from praying while endlessly promoting degenerate LGBT and anti-White propaganda,” Gaetz told the Caller before introducing the bill.
“My legislation unlocks religious freedom once again so that in every classroom in America, there will be time for students to pray if they choose,” Gaetz added.
He’s lying about all of that.
There’s no ban on prayer. None. Students and staffers who pray privately will not, and have not, be punished for it. The ACLU and other church/state separation groups have never gone after private prayers; in fact, they would defend those who want to do so.
(The idea that public schools are promoting “degenerate LGBT and anti-White propaganda” is nothing more than a conservative talking point that has no basis in reality. Gaetz, as usual, just wants to rile up Democrats.)
But there is a reason his draft bill, which he never actually elaborated on in his press release, should be taken seriously. It’s word salad that is quite literally unconstitutional. If passed, though, it would permit religious coercion from teachers, administrators, and students. Here’s the entirety of the text:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to any limitation on the ability of that person to engage in prayer [in any school] shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.
In English, this bill basically says no one’s allowed to stop someone else from praying in school. And if anyone tries, that person can be sued for it.
That would bind any administrator who attempts to put a stop to religious proselytizing in schools.
Suppose a teacher began each class with a Christian prayer. That blatantly violates the Establishment Clause right now, but this bill would permit it. Suppose a football coach leads the team in Christian prayers before games and all athletes are expected to participate for the sake of team unity. That’s unconstitutional right now too, but this bill would go after anyone who tried to stop that coach.
What Gaetz wants to do is destroy the Establishment Clause for shits and giggles. He’s not interested in religious freedom because you know a Muslim or Satanist would never be allowed to get away with this. This is nothing more than red meat for Christian Nationalists who believe they have an obligation to shove their faith in everyone else’s faces, no matter the environment or their jobs, and should always be allowed to get away with it.
It’s part of the Republican Party’s larger attack on public education, whether they’re banning books, limiting what can be taught in the classroom, or treating LGBTQ teachers as enemies of the state. Gaetz wants public schools to become extensions of Christian churches because he’s more interested in advancing his religious agenda than protecting the rights of students and teachers.
Earlier this year, in response to the Bremerton ruling, the Department of Eduction released guidance for public schools on the issue of prayer.
The new guidance says "Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity."
It goes on to say the U.S. Constitution allows school employees themselves to engage in private prayer during the workday. But it warns that they may not "compel, coerce, persuade, or encourage students to join in the employee's prayer or other religious activity."
The guidance also says a school may take reasonable measures to ensure students aren't pressured to join in their teachers' or coaches' prayers.
Those were perfectly reasonable guidelines and in line with what we already knew to be the law. Yet that’s still not good enough for religious zealots who think they’re being deprived of their religious rights by not being able to force their faith upon other people.
The good news is that this bill is destined to fail. The Senate won’t pass it and President Joe Biden won’t sign it. Gaetz knows that. But that’s not the point. This is all about sending a message to his base. It’s all about political theater. (Or perhaps to draw attention away from his own moral degeneracy.)
If any of Gaetz’s allies ever read the Constitution, though, they would know that prayer in school is already protected speech. None of them care. They’re only interested in getting hits on right-wing media outlets, not passing bills that would help their constituents.
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