The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lobbying arm is calling out a Florida member of Congress for his misbegotten attempt to force religion on public schools.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., announced this week that he will be filing a new bill, the “National Prayer in School Act.” He has claimed in the official statement that “the legislation, if passed, will allow students and staff to pray in school without fear of repercussion if they choose to engage.” Gaetz also stated that the bill “will enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling to allow every person the ability to engage in prayer in school.” His official announcement of the bill included a quote promoting religion and denigrating LGBTQ-plus people: “God’s reach does not stop at the schoolhouse gates. Our country’s education policy forbids students and faculty from praying while endlessly promoting degenerate LGBT and anti-white propaganda.”
Gaetz’s bill will not allow public schools or school officials to host school-sponsored prayer or coerce students into participating in prayer in public schools, since it violates the constitutional rights of students, FFRF Action Fund informs him. Students are entitled to their personal religious beliefs — or lack thereof — without interference from school officials, and thus school officials cannot be permitted to engage in prayer while acting in their official capacities.
“Students are already allowed to pray in school as long as they don’t disrupt school activities,” FFRF Action Fund Attorney Chris Line writes to Gaetz. “The Equal Access Act already permits student religious and bible clubs in public schools that allow other non-academic student clubs. Rights of conscience are protected under the First Amendment, and your proposed bill will have no effect on students’ religious exercise rights.”
Instead, it is clear from the language in Gaetz’s bill and his accompanying statements that the intent of the bill, based on his profound misunderstanding of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, is to challenge constitutional constraints properly preventing teachers and other school officials from pressuring students into praying in school.
Contrary to Gaetz’s misguided notion, however, the Kennedy ruling has not radically changed the law regarding school-sponsored prayers. It simply affirms that school officials may pray privately during times when they are not acting in their official capacity as district representatives. In May, the Department of Education released guidance around the Bremerton decision that correctly says school officials “may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity” and that schools can take measures to make sure that students aren’t being pressured to join in prayers. Those who would use this ruling as an excuse to encourage schools to encourage or coerce students into prayer are spreading misinformation.
Plus, school-sponsored religious practices alienate the sizeable proportion of nonreligious students and community members, since 37 percent of the American population is non-Christian, including the almost 30 percent who are nonreligious. At least a third of Generation Z (those born after 1996) have no religion, with a recent survey revealing almost half of Gen Z qualify as “nones” (religiously unaffiliated). These students aren’t choosing not to pray in school because it’s “forbidden,” they aren’t praying because they don’t want to.
The FFRF Action Fund is urging Gaetz to withdraw his unconstitutional bill and cease using his position as a member of Congress to try to push his personal religious beliefs on a captive audience of public school children.
“Gaetz is attempting to impose religion on the U.S. public school system,” says FFRF Action Fund President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This is fundamentally un-American.”
FFRF Action Fund is the legislative affiliate of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 2,000 members in Florida and a local chapter. We work to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and the rights of America’s growing population of nonbelievers.