CONCORD — What started as an attempt by lawmakers to remove outdated language on the Lord’s Prayer from state statutes is morphing into a wider effort to define options for prayer in public schools.
The House Education Committee will vote Tuesday on a bill (HB 289) to repeal the current state law that allows public school teachers to lead students in the Lord’s Prayer.
Opponents of the repeal, who have called it hostile to religion, will propose an amendment to confirm the right of students to pray in public schools during non-instructional time.
The law encouraging recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in New Hampshire public schools has been on the books since the 1970s, despite an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court that it’s unconstitutional. Everyone agrees that the law would be struck down if challenged.
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.”
No public school district in the state currently takes advantage of the statute, but state Rep. Amanda Bouldin, D-Manchester, lead sponsor of HB 289, believes it should be repealed as a matter of housekeeping.
“I would certainly hope that our legislators would be brave enough to do the right thing even in the face of controversy,” said Bouldin. “We know this isn’t constitutional. We have a 1973 ruling from the New Hampshire Supreme Court saying as much.”
Shannon McGinley, executive director of the conservative policy group Cornerstone, said she is concerned that the bill is motivated by “animus toward religion,” and supports the amendment that will be presented by Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, who serves on the Education Committee.
“Rather than just repealing the existing statute, we have the opportunity to put into statute constitutionally and court-defined religious freedoms for students and staff,” said Cordelli.
He proposes new language on the right of schools to authorize a moment of silence during the school day: “Each student may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity that does not interfere with, distract or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice,” his amendment states.
He will also propose broadening the state’s existing law on moments of silence.
Current law, under the heading Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Religion, allows for five minutes of private prayer before the start of each school day.
The law states, “On each school day, before classes of instruction officially convene in the public schools of this sovereign state, a period of not more than five minutes shall be available to those who may wish to exercise their right to freedom of assembly and participate voluntarily in the free exercise of religion.
“There shall be no teacher supervision of this free exercise of religion, nor shall there be any prescribed or proscribed form or content of prayer.”
According to Cordelli, judicial rulings allow for more than five minutes at the start of the school day. His amendment, which would replace the existing Freedom of Religion clause, is designed to “expand the rights of students and teachers in terms of their religious freedoms.”
It states that “No district shall infringe upon the right of students or teachers to pray or engage in other forms of religious expression or observation on school grounds during non-instructional time.”
Districts will have the right to provide instruction related to religion, including the influences of religion on history, literature and other subject areas, “when presented in a neutral manner and when serving a valid, secular educational purpose and not promoting religious beliefs or practices.”
Student-organized religious clubs or activities will be permitted if the activity takes place during non-instructional time; school officials are not involved in organizing or running the club; and the school makes its facilities available to all student groups on an equal basis.
And finally, school employees including teachers will be authorized to take part in religious activities “where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities.”
Christopher Jay, a Manchester attorney who has worked with Cornerstone on this issue, says the old law on the Lord’s Prayer should not simply be deleted, as SB 289 suggests, but replaced with a more detailed statute on religious freedom in public education.
“The best way to rectify this law would be to amend it to recognize explicitly the constitutional boundaries of First Amendment religious freedom in public schools, and the definitive role that such freedom has played in our history,” he said.