JACKSON, Miss. – Supporters say bills to guarantee religious freedom in Mississippi public schools are meant to ensure students can talk about spiritual beliefs and aren't deprived of their rights.
But some supporters also say the measures would legalize prayer before school audiences, and that makes people who advocate for separation of church and state uneasy.
Both the state House and the state Senate have passed versions of the Schoolchildren's Religious Liberties Act. The chambers must agree on a single bill before anything would go to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. The Senate version represents the first time the chamber has passed such a bill, improving chances that it will become law.
Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, has introduced a bill every year since 2009. He said it's meant in part to dispel confusion about whether students are allowed to discuss religious themes in school work or wear religious clothing to school. Such rights are guaranteed under federal law, but Formby said schools afraid of getting involved in disputes over religion are suppressing students from writing or talking about their faith in any context.
"I'm not so much worried about what's allowed as what's disallowed," Formby said. "I keep having parents come to me and complain. This would give clarity to the law."
The measures go farther. They declare that school events such as graduations and football games, as well as morning announcements, are "limited public forums." The proposal sets out a model policy districts could adopt, specifying that certain groups of students would be allowed to speak on such occasions.
"It doesn't have to restore school prayer," Formby said. "It will allow children, on a voluntary basis, to pray or not to pray."
But it's clear that advocates for the measure, especially those outside the Legislature, believe it would clear the way for student-led prayer before groups.
"People ask me if this is a step toward getting prayer back in schools. I think this is THE step to get prayer back in schools," said Paul Ott, who hosts religion-flavored radio and television programs about hunting, fishing and the outdoors.
Bear Atwood, interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said this bill has the same flaw -- forcing students to listen to someone else's religious expression -- that led judges to strike down a previous Mississippi law allowing student-led prayer.
"The courts have never said it's OK to hold a captive audience," Atwood said.
Advocates for the bill say that because the school wouldn't dictate the message and would publish a disclaimer that it wasn't sponsoring prayer, the practice would be legal. Atwood, though, questioned whether the bill would truly create a hands-off public forum, since the model policy calls for schools to limit speaking opportunities to certain students who win honors. It says schools also should prevent vulgarity and make sure remarks are appropriate to the occasion.
"It's really, actually, quite regulated in terms of what the content can be," Atwood said.
The head of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, Sam Bounds, said he allowed student-led prayer when he was superintendent in Brookhaven.
"I'm a good Southern Baptist," he said.
But he's worried a law could put schools in conflict with federal courts. "I don't want us to get in a situation where we're trying to pass state law that contradicts federal law," Bounds said.
One way out to sidestep such a conflict would be for school boards to adopt some other policy than the model set out in the bills. That's what happened in Texas, where the state school board association published a different model policy despite attacks from proponents of the law.
Both proponents and opponents of the proposed law say organized school prayer remains widespread in Mississippi, despite opponents' efforts to curtail it. In October 2012, for example, the ACLU sent a letter to the Lincoln County school system demanding a halt to routine prayer at West Lincoln High School. Ott said that over many years of presenting public school programs, he's heard countless prayers.
Rabbi Debra Kasoff, who leads the Hebrew Union Temple in Greenville, said she appreciates the faith of Mississippi residents. But she said that as the mother of public school student, she objects to organized school prayer.
"It's not appropriate for there to be school-sanctioned or school-approved times where students stand up and lead the community in prayer," Kasoff said.
Ott, though, said he believed schools have seen more bad behavior, harassment, bullying and even school shootings because of prayer's exclusion.
"Let's get God back in the schools some way," Ott said. "We've been praying in schools for 200 years. Why should we stop?"