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Christianity to make a comeback in Texas public schools under GOP proposals

Republican lawmakers in the Lone Star State are backing three bills that would embed Christian teaching and practices in public schools and allow school districts to hire faith leaders as employees.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Emboldened by a Supreme Court ruling last summer, Republicans in the Texas Legislature are ramping up efforts to put religion back in public schools. In response, advocates for religious freedom have mounted opposition to what they view as a blatant attack on church-state separation.

Senate Bill 1515 would require a poster of the Ten Commandments to be in every public school classroom in the state. Under Senate Bill 1396, public school districts would be able to adopt policies allowing for a moment of prayer and a reading from the Bible or other religious text during the school day. To participate in prayer, students and faculty must give written consent and conduct their activities away from students that have not provided consent. Finally, Senate Bill 763 is a measure that would allow school districts to employ chaplains to serve as school counselors.

Republican state Senator Mayes Middleton of Galveston authored both SB 1396 and SB 763. During the layout of SB 1396 on the Senate floor, he told his fellow lawmakers that the bill is needed to expand religious liberties in public schools.

“The reality is that our school children and faculty spend much of their lives in the school building and classroom…and our schools are not God-free zones,” said Middleton.

For Cantor Sheri Allen, the three bills represent less of an expansion of religious freedom and more of an attempt to instill Christian dominance. Allen has worked for years as a member of the Jewish clergy in the state and is co-founder of Makom Shelanu synagogue in Fort Worth, Texas. 

In an interview, Allen said that SB 1396 and SB 1515 would create a toxic learning environment for children who do not practice Christianity.

“That is just exclusive and will heighten bullying which will heighten antisemitism and islamophobia,” said Allen.

As for SB 763, Allen, who has worked as a chaplain at a hospital, said she would be “completely unqualified to do the work that a school counselor does.”

Traditionally, chaplains provide spiritual care to people in medical settings, the military and for workers in government services such as police and firefighters. Chaplains offer this care to more than just people from their faith tradition, meaning a chaplain who is Jewish would still be able to provide pastoral services to someone who is Christian. Senate Bill 763, does not require chaplains to be certified by the State Board of Education, as school counselors are, or receive accreditation through a pastoral education program.

Allen fears that spiritual leaders, acting as school counselors, would result in children receiving religious teachings in place of real counseling services. 

Despite these concerns raised by Allen and others, lawmakers have not wavered. In addition to seeing their legislation as addressing a need in public schools, Republicans believe that a ruling out of the Supreme Court last June makes their bills less likely to be struck down by the courts. 

The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, was viewed by many conservative Christians as an example of how the government uses secularism to chill religious speech. Proponents of church-state separation saw it differently. They saw a government employee using his position as a coach to spread the gospel.

Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington, sued his employer after he was suspended for holding prayers on the 50-yard line after games. He argued that the school district violated his right to freely exercise his religion. 

Ruling 6-3, the high court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Kennedy. In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained that the coach acted as a private citizen, not a public school employee, during his post-game prayers.  


“When Mr. Kennedy uttered the three prayers that resulted in his suspension, he was not engaged in speech ‘ordinarily within the scope’ of his duties as a coach,” wrote Gorsuch.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, described the decision as misguided and “no victory for religious liberty.” In her understanding of the case, Kennedy conducted his prayers while coach to an audience of students on several occasions, placing them under coercive pressure.  

What makes the court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District groundbreaking yet complicated, is that it departed from using a legal analysis known as the Lemon test. 

The Lemon test was created in the 1971 Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman. It required statutes related to religion to serve a secular purpose, abstain from advancing or inhibiting religion and not result in excessive government entanglement with religion. A statute that failed the test would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s establishment clause, barring Congress from “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Due to the court’s signaling that it will no longer rely on the Lemon test, lawmakers such as Middleton believe that the legal landscape has changed and laws such as his are now permissible. During a Senate Education Committee meeting, Middleton said his bill —SB 1396 — is in line with current case law, citing the decision in Kennedy.

According to professor Steve Collis at the University of Texas at Austin, the senator’s interpretation is not that simple. 

Collis said in an interview that in place of the Lemon test, the court wants government officials and judges “to be determining whether something is allowed under the establishment clause by looking to historical practices and understandings.”

If passed into law, Collis expects the laws to face legal challenges. Through these challenges, it will be up to the courts to interpret the laws through the new analysis set by the Supreme Court in Kennedy. As he sees it, Collis thinks the implementation of the Texas bills is key for whether the laws live or die by the court.

Alison Gill, vice president of legal and policy at American Atheists, believes that the laws are blatantly unconstitutional and present a real threat to religious freedom in the state.

“I think [these bills] will result in religious coercion against both non-religious people and religious minorities,” said Gill in an interview. “For those who refuse to conform, it will result in bullying and harassment by the school.” 

Gill said an end goal for lawmakers may be to put the question of prayer, the Ten Commandments and spiritual leaders in public schools before the Supreme Court.

“This is clearly opposed to what the court has said in an effort to get up to the high court and to see if they can get those precedents rescinded,” said Gill.

The bills — SB 1515, SB 1396 and SB 763 — are currently working their way through the Texas House after receiving unanimous support from Republicans in the Senate.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District both inspired and complicated the legislation brought by lawmakers in the Lone Star State. Collis believes that while conservatives saw the ruling as a win, the laws they seek to enact have no clear future under the same ruling. 

“What Kennedy did is not nearly as clear as what either the critics of the court or the purveyors of these laws say,” explained Collis. “I think we are on the verge of maybe a decade or more of litigation, trying now to figure out what the historical practices and understandings really allow.”

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