ANNAPOLIS – Several community groups and church representatives supported a bill to permit student-led prayers at school-sponsored events, while the American Civil Liberties Union told lawmakers it was contradictory and probably unconstitutional.
William J. Murray, a former social Darwinist who became a Southern Baptist, testified in favor of the bill Tuesday and gave Maryland House Ways and Means Committee members copies of his book “Let Us Pray.”
His mother, atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair, launched the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that banned prayer in public schools.
Freedom of speech is at stake, said Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition.
The bill is “only one small attempt to roll back the tide of religious censorship,” Murray said. “We’ve become so myopic and politically correct, we’ve just lost common sense.”
The legislation stems from an incident during a graduation at Northern High School in Calvert County.
An agnostic student named Nick Becker opposed a formal prayer at graduation, so it was changed to a moment of silence, according to published reports. Upset at the change, thousands of people in the audience spoke “The Lord’s Prayer” aloud. Becker left the ceremony and was blocked by police from returning to accept his diploma. He also was excluded from the post-graduation party and cruise.
“This bill protects their First Amendment right to call upon the name of the Lord. It’s not about putting a steeple on a schoolhouse,” Doug Myers, pastor of Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach, told the House panel.
The bill gives students freedom to write their own prayers but requires the content to be “appropriate” and “consistent with community standards.”
Those two elements are contradictory, opponents said, but Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, one of the bill’s sponsors, argued the policy is tolerant of all religious views and does not allow one religion to dominate.
Because the measure applies to compulsory school events with captive audiences, like graduation, the policy is coercive, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
It would “clearly permit the religious rights of one individual to trump those of others who wish to believe silently, differently, or not at all. The bill would coerce students to participate in religious exercises with which they do not agree,” said Suzanne Smith, ACLU legislative director, in written testimony to the committee.
Darryl Schenk, whose daughter Julie was prevented from leading a prayer at Northern High School’s graduation, said prayer would foster respect and decorum in schools. Schenk is a member of the Right-To-Pray Coalition, a recently formed group of Calvert County residents advocating school prayer.
A “humanist” environment encourages violence, Schenk said.
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a controversial school prayer case over mandated invocations before football games in a Texas school district.
David Conn, director of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, recommended the state Legislature wait for the Supreme Court ruling before it passes any school prayer bills.