CONCORD — The question of prayer in public schools was on the table Wednesday afternoon, as lawmakers heard testimony on a bill that would repeal a state law allowing public elementary schools to start the day with prayer.
The law allowing recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in New Hampshire public schools has been on the books since 1975, despite an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court that it’s unconstitutional.
No public school district in the state currently takes advantage of the statute, according to both opponents and supporters of the bill, but state Rep. Amanda Bouldin, D-Manchester, argued before the House Education Committee that it should be repealed.
As prime sponsor of the bill, she offered a historical overview of how the law came about, the ensuing advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court upon request of the Legislature, and later unsuccessful attempts to have the law repealed.
“I hope I’ve demonstrated that it is unconstitutional,” she said. “Our own Supreme Court has declared it so and no (public school) teacher would want to take advantage of this opportunity because they would be worried about the liability and constitutionality of teaching prayer in public schools.”
Bouldin said she was surprised to learn the law is still on the books.
“I was struck by how unusual this is and inconsistent with my expectations of law,” she said.
The law states, “As an affirmation of the freedom of religion in this country, a school district may authorize the recitation of the traditional Lord’s Prayer in public elementary schools. Pupil participation shall be voluntary.”
The law uses the word “shall” to describe how teachers must proceed if a district decides to implement the law.
“Pupils shall be reminded that this Lord’s Prayer is the prayer our Pilgrim fathers recited when they came to this country in their search for freedom. Pupils shall be informed that these exercises are not meant to influence an individual’s personal religious beliefs in any manner.”
Rep. Joshua Query, D-Manchester, said the language sets a goal of endorsing religious freedom, but “undermines that exact intent.”
“Parents should continue to have the right to raise their children in whatever faith they believe suits their family best,” he said.
Shannon McGinley, executive director of the conservative policy group Cornerstone, acknowledged that no school district that she knows of is having teachers lead students in the Lord’s Prayer, but said her group still opposes the bill.
She described it as “a clear rejection of the law’s framework within which mere recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is permitted within historical context for the purpose of teaching students about what the law calls ‘our great freedoms.’”
“Ruling out recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is one thing,” she testified. “Airbrushing it out of American history is another.”
If the bill is passed, she urged an amendment against any prohibition on student-led prayer, stating: “Such an amendment could provide assurance that animus toward religion is not the driving force behind HB 289.”