Responding to the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday, State Representative Stan Lee (R-Lexington) blamed lack of religion in public schools. Pointing to students allegedly being forbidden to pray in or bring Bibles to school, Lee proclaimed, “You drove God out of the school house, what do you expect?”
Two major problems exist in Lee’s argument: students are not prohibited from either praying at school or from bringing Bibles to school; and using his position as a taxpayer-funded, elected position to endorse religious viewpoints is constitutionally problematic.
Religion in Schools
The law is clear on what role religion can play in public schools. While teachers, administrators, and other taxpayer-funded officials cannot endorse religion in any way – from leading or participating in prayer with students to allowing outside religious influences access to students on school grounds – students have always enjoyed a constitutional right to bring Bibles to school and to pray in their spare time so long as the prayer does not interfere with class time.
The key to the distinction is choice: forcing students to engage in religious exercises violates the Constitution. That includes any prayer or other religious activity led by school officials, as the courts have repeatedly ruled children cannot reasonably be expected to feel they can exercise their right to abstain from those exercises due to peer pressure and the hierarchal mentor-student relationship that compels them to participate lest they be ostracized, punished, or worse.
In his speech on the House floor, Rep. Lee took free exercise of religion to an unconstitutional level when he associated lack of religion in schools with mass shootings.
Referring to the increase in deadly school shootings, Lee said, “But can we blame an almighty righteous God, who we told, ‘we don’t want you in the school house’?”
He went on to argue “right” and “morality” have been driven out of schools “…because we’ve driven God out of schools.”
He went on to argue mass shooting problems didn’t exist when children were allowed to pray and bring Bibles to school – a factually inaccurate statement as (1) the number and rate of school shootings hasn’t changed much over time (only the violence and death toll in those shootings has risen) and (2) children have always – even today – been able to pray in and bring Bibles to school.
Lee went on to say that “…if we would just turn to [God]” instead of “man-made laws, all of these problems would be solved.”
Lee didn’t explain how implementing a practice that’s already legal (and common) would reduce the number of mass school shootings. He did, however, offer what he viewed as a solution to the non-existent problem of school children not being able to pray or bring Bibles to school.
“So if we’re going to consider a bunch of other laws, maybe we need to consider some laws…to allow, maybe the Lord could come back in.”
Let’s Not Make the Same Mistake Twice
Any law proposed or passed by the state legislature requiring religious beliefs – Christian or otherwise – be mandated in public schools would be wholly unconstitutional and would cost Kentucky taxpayers thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) in costly litigation before ultimately being ruled unconstitutional.
Just as the country doesn’t need any additional ‘thoughts and prayers’ to stop the next mass shooting, Kentucky doesn’t need pointless unconstitutional legislation establishing or otherwise endorsing religion. We didn’t learn our lesson when we allowed Kim Davis to challenge established federal law based on her religious beliefs (and taxpayers are paying the price for that); let’s not make the same mistake twice.