Democrats are now joining Republicans in the Georgia Legislature's religious freedom debate with a piece of new legislation that describes rules for religious expression in public schools – including involving prayers before football games.
The bipartisan bill, HB–816, called the “Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act” focuses on prayer in public schools and is sponsored by Representative Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain). Co-sponsors include Jimmy Pruett (R-Eastman), Mack Jackson (D-Sandersville), Dominic LaRiccia (R-Douglas) Sandra Scott (D-Rex) and Steve Tarvin ( R-Chickamauga).
Mitchell said the bill is not a direct response to other legislation on religious freedom. But, “I’ve had many a minister call me to say that they were very, very interested in this legislation and wanted to see something like that,” he said. “Their mantra is 'we’ve taken prayer out of the schools and look at all the problems that have come into it.'”
According to multiple constitutional scholars, voluntary prayer by students is allowed in the lunchroom, on the playground and in classrooms as long as it’s not disruptive or in some way affects learning.
But Mitchell’s bill goes further than just affirming a student’s right to pray before taking a test or eating lunch. It includes regulations to allow students to lead voluntary, public prayers at football games, graduation ceremonies and other school events.
The bill goes into great detail about how graduation prayers should happen. For instance, it says students who volunteer shall be drawn randomly, and the graduation program will include notice that they were selected based on neutral criteria.
Mitchell admits that section of the bill could face constitutional challenges because it may appear a school is showing favoritism to one set of beliefs.
“You’re requiring students to come to their graduation, and, if someone gets up and expresses a religious point of view, it seems to be condoning that religious point of view,” he said.
Emory Law professor Alexander Sasha Volohk, who spoke on a panel earlier this month about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act currently pending in the Georgia House, said, under Mitchell’s bill, whether prayers are public school events will come down to the details of each situation.
Volohk gave the example of a football game in a small town where there aren’t many social events. An individual might be able to say they there’s not an alternative event for them to attend.
“There’s a fact-intensive question of how much subjective pressure there is to sit through the event,” he said.
University of Georgia professor Anthony Michael Kreis points to another potential issue in Mitchell’s bill: that it would allow students to wear religious clothing “to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry that display messages or symbols are permitted.”
“There are religious shirts with undertones that could be bullying against religious minorities and LGBT folks,” Kreis said.
However, according to Volohk, students’ free speech rights are often violated by school administrators who restrict the clothes they can wear.
Mitchell's bill brings the number of religious freedom bills proposed in the legislature to at least five.