NASHVILLE, Tenn.— The Senate passed a proposal Thursday that would allow teachers and other school workers to participate in prayer groups and other religious activities on school grounds, so long as they are initiated by students.
Sponsors of the bill brought it in part to support “See You at the Pole” gatherings, where students and their parents gather at school flagpoles to pray.
The measure was approved 29-1. The companion bill unanimously passed the House 93-0 earlier this month. Before it can go to the governor, the measure must go back to the House to approve an amendment that was added.
The legislation allows school personnel to participate in such activities as long as they don’t carry into the classroom or conflict with the assignments of the participant.
The activities must also be student-initiated and be held before or after school. The amendment clarifies that teachers can attend events in cases where a school may rent out its facilities to a church or faith-based organization.
“It just makes it clear that people should be able to express their religious faith … on their own time,” said House sponsor Phillip Johnson, R-Pegram.
A few years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee settled a lawsuit against Cheatham County schools after they agreed to stop teachers and officials from promoting religion during school hours.
Tennessee ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg said Thursday that events outside of school hours such as “See You at the Pole” are permissible under certain conditions, but “public school employees must take care to prevent the impression of endorsement of religion.”
“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,” she said. “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 the students.”
Sen. Roy Herron was the main sponsor of a law enacted in 1997 that allows teachers to exercise their religious liberty rights. The Dresden Democrat voted for the proposal on Thursday, but he also hinted that it’s not necessary.
“The new legislation I don’t think does any harm, but I also don’t think it does anything new,” he said.
Senate sponsor Jim Summerville disagreed.
“It may be redundant, but I think we can’t affirm too often our First Amendment rights,” said the Dickson Republican.
Democratic Sen. Beverly Marrero of Memphis was the lone vote against the measure. She’s concerned the proposal would re-create an atmosphere of exclusion for some students.
“What about the Jewish kids, won’t they feel left out?” she asked. “What about the little Muslim kids? We shouldn’t be trying to make our kids feel like anybody’s different.”