Religious freedoms at heart of school prayer bill


State legislation that would affirm students’ religious rights in schools could be enacted as soon as next school year, but local superintendents question its value and don’t think it will change much if passed.

House Bill 1024 provides that public schools must make room for religious expression in school assignments, and that schools must allow students to pray before, during and after classes are dismissed. The bill also states that students must be able to wear clothing that displays religious messages and creates a “limited public forum” for religious viewpoints at school events.

“The legislation is not needed,” Southeast Dubois Superintendent Rick Allen said in an email. “They seem to try and fix a problem that does not exist.”

The bill passed through the Indiana House of Representatives on Feb. 27 with 83 yeas and 12 nays. It was last referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development on March 1.

North Spencer Superintendent Dan Scherry said all of the freedoms of religion the bill cites are currently allowed in public schools, adding that students and teachers alike pray daily in North Spencer Schools.

While state-sponsored or teacher-led prayer is not allowed in the schools, students are still permitted to pray voluntarily and teachers are allowed to teach about religions. Scherry said some North Spencer students elect to congregate in prayer groups to practice their religion while others simply pray silently throughout the day.

“Just come on the first day of ISTEP and you’ll see a lot of prayers,” Scherry joked. “(Students) have the right to gather together, the right to pray. They have all kinds of rights and the boundary there is don’t infringe upon the rights of others.”

Scherry said he thinks the bill is mostly a way for state legislatures to build awareness for ways students are permitted to exercise and show their faith in schools.

“I think for years and years people have been told what they cannot do,” he said. “I think there’s some movement to get information out there that says, ‘Yeah, but you can operate within these guidelines.’ This bill just brings a little more emphasis that there are things you can do.”

He said that since the bill doesn’t introduce anything that isn’t already allowed, he doesn’t think anything will change at North Spencer Schools.

Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang agreed. Northeast Dubois High School currently has a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, which is an interdenominational Christian sports ministry program active in 47 countries.

The roughly 60 students who participate in the program organize a prayer around the flag pole outside Northeast Dubois High School before a school day in the fall and a similar event in the spring where students read prayers and band members play music. Throughout the year, participating students meet before the school day starts for Bible studies and scripture lessons.

Jasper High School, Heritage Hills High School, Southridge High School, and Forest Park High School also have FCA chapters.

“I think (it’s) fantastic that our youth are embracing faith and willing to show their faith,” Hochgesang said.

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