Poor Prayer Proposal: Utah Legislator Pushes Unnecessary ‘Religious Liberties’ Bill

In sum, the Utah proposal either restates the law or misinterprets it. Yet it is described as “a model policy for voluntary religious expression in public schools.”

A Utah legislator seems to have forgotten about the U.S. Constitution and decades of judicial jurisprudence. State Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), is currently working on an unnecessary bill that introduces redundant or dangerous provisions regarding religious freedom for students in public schools.

Some of Weiler’s ideas have already been settled by numerous federal laws, as well as U.S. Supreme Court and appellate court decisions. Others push the envelope. Implicit within the bill is an invitation for school officials to meddle in students’ religious lives.

Emily Chiang, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah’s Quinney College of Law, argues that the law will put the state and its schools in shaky legal territory if passed.

“Once the courts suspect that the school is somehow encouraging me to pray or providing a space for only religious students to offer their opinions, or in any way regulating the content of what I say, then they start to become concerned,” Chiang said.

Sen. Weiler disagrees, insisting, “I’m not trying to advocate one religion over another, or religion over atheism or anything like that.”

But even assuming good intentions, this law will likely devolve into the support of one religion (Christianity, specifically Mormonism) over another, considering Utah is the most religiously homogenous of the 50 states.

Additionally, advocating one religion over another would be both a clear violation of the First Amendment and an affront to the Utah Constitution, which specifically states that “no public money or property shall be appropriated or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical instruction.”

The proposed Utah law is modeled on a bill from Mississippi signed into law earlier this year. Senate Bill 2633, “The Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013,” contains a mix of mind-achingly obvious provisions, inaccurate portrayals of the law and vague concepts.

It, for example, allows “voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints.” As a private matter, this isn’t a problem. If it becomes an excuse to hijack a school event and impose religious worship onto others it’s definitely a problem.

The bill, which passed the Mississippi House of Representatives 109-6 and Senate 50-1, permits a plethora of already-permissible provisions, including the establishment of student-led religious groups and organizations , a matter that is covered by a 1980s-era federal law.

In addition, the Mississippi legislation reminds teachers that “Homework and classroom assignments must be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district.”

Other provisions are more alarming. One allows “a limited public forum for student speakers at nongraduation and graduation events,” which encompasses an infinite spectrum of possible events. The bill’s language does not explicitly say prayer is the motivation behind this “limited public forum,” but it says it certainly won’t stop a student from using the time to pray or expound their religious viewpoints.

The bill even went as far as to specifically enumerate certain occasions during which this “limited public forum” applies: opening prayers for football games and other athletic events? Check. Preaching during morning announcements over the school intercom? Sure, why not. Appealing to a deity before assemblies and pep rallies? You guessed it.

In sum, the Utah proposal, like its Mississippi twin, either restates the law or misinterprets it. Yet it is described as “a model policy for voluntary religious expression in public schools.”

Weiler seems to agree, and he certainly will not be the final state legislator across the country seeking to implement this reckless legislation. Maybe if the Religious Right were to realize how much religious freedom they actually enjoyed then cases like this would not come up as often.

In response to their complaints, Weiler has said he plans to work on the wording of the bill with the ACLU and Atheists of Utah. Hopefully these two groups can talk some sense into him before this bill becomes a law.