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WISEMAN: A bold stroke for religious liberty in Mississippi public schools

In March 14, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed what may become landmark legislation clarifying and guaranteeing religious freedom in Mississippi’s public schools. It can be said that it is so far-reaching that it affects all religious believers and those who have no religious beliefs at all.

As might have been expected, a number of organizations whose existence depend on their roles as watchdogs over the maintenance of the separation of church and state reacted quickly and critically to the new law. The early reactions in opposition may be of the “knee jerk” variety when one makes a careful reading of Senate Bill 2633, “The Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013.” Of course, the initial assumption is that passing this legislation is a roundabout means of proselytizing in behalf of fundamentalist Christian religions. However, it should be noted at the outset that there is no reference made anywhere in the legislation to the Christian faith or any other identifiable religious sect or organization.

In reality, there are several things at play with respect to Mississippi’s effort in this regard. But first, a reminder of the First Amendment language pertaining to religious freedom would be in order. The First Amendment states in part that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, …”

prayerMany opportunities have been made available for interpreting the meaning of this language referred to as the “establishment clause,” and the results have been various cracks and fissures in the famous “wall of separation between church and state.” The proponents of Senate Bill 2633 maintain that their legislation is an effort to gather up the allowances made over time by the U.S. Supreme Court and put them in one spot in hopes of adding clarity in behalf of school decision makers. These administrators, in the absence of a clearly understandable track to run on, have in recent years tended to act on the side of caution. It is felt by the supporters of this legislation that it will provide some relief from those concerns.

An additional call to action comes from the current wave of state-centered legislative efforts underway as a result of gridlock in Congress and the growing activism of 30 state legislatures with Republican majorities. In short, conservative Republicans have been quite successful in shifting the battlefield on social and religious issues from the national level to the state level. Mississippi’s legislation is not the first to raise a potential challenge to church/state issues as they have been interpreted over the last 50 years.

This brings us to the content of the legislation itself. In that regard, it might be said at this early stage that the ACLU and similar organizations “doth protest too much.” Based upon a thorough reading, it is clear that Senate Bill 2633 protects virtually any sort of non-disruptive religious activity that is student initiated and that is not state or school sponsored. Indeed, that casts a wide net. In fact, the legislation makes it clear that not only the Christian religion, but every other religion is given freedom and access to public school property and protections to expressions. Thus, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintos, Wiccans and a long list of others will share with Christians an unprecedented freedom to express themselves religiously in public schools.

Basically, Senate Bill 2633 sets into law the following provisions for all religious believers or those who have no beliefs at all: voluntary student expressions of religious viewpoints; religious expression in class assignments without penalty or lower grade; freedom to organize religious groups and activities; the provision that districts must provide a limited public forum for student speakers at non-graduation and graduation events; the provision that students may wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display religious messages and religious symbols in the same way they wear clothing bearing secular messages.

The sweep of the legislation is far reaching. The breadth of allowed freedom of expression by all religious beliefs is significant. Governor Phil Bryant underscored the intent of the law in a comment in the March 15 edition of the New York Times when he stated, “We are about making sure that we protect the religious freedoms of all students and adults whenever we can.”

Society in America and, yes, even in Mississippi is becoming more diverse by the day. The globe is rapidly shrinking as we become more mobile. Thus, people from other parts of the world with customs and religious beliefs far different from our own are becoming our friends and neighbors, and our children are going to school together. Senate Bill 2633 guarantees that our public schools will be the venue for many broader learning experiences where religious diversity is concerned.

Add to the holidays of the American Protestant and Catholic traditions an understanding of the important days in Judaism, an awareness of the Muslim month of fasting called Ramadan, Dewali, the Hindu New Year celebration, and any number of others. No doubt, problems of interpretation will arise. Furthermore, the likelihood exists that there will be clashes between some of the more unusual and unfamiliar religions and the more traditional beliefs.

Nevertheless, for now Senate Bill 2633, “The Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013” is headed toward the law books. Only time will tell if we can accept such a broad range of religious freedoms.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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