Idaho Legislature is trying to combine church and state through school prayer bill | Opinion

I come from two generations of ordained ministers who have long honored and respected the tradition and rule of separation of church and state. The U.S. and Idaho constitutions both guarantee religious freedom and prohibit government from either encouraging or discouraging actions relating to the practice or non-practice of religion.

But now through House Bill 182, the Idaho legislature appears to be bent on giving people in authority at public colleges, universities, public schools and public charter schools — teachers, coaches, administrators — a green light to essentially coerce students into prayer activities.

Our country was founded on the separation of church and state. Religious freedom — which encompasses freedom from being forced to practice a religion you don’t believe in — is largely a reason why the United States of America exists. This bill is anti-American.

The reasoning behind the bill comes from taking a U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in a Washington case out of context. The proposal purports to allow these same authority figures to engage in “silent prayer at any time he is otherwise free to engage in personal conversations or other personal conduct.”

This is quite broad considering the narrow focus of the high court’s 6-3 ruling.

The court decision the bill is based on does still protect the core constitutional prohibition against official prayer in public schools, but the Idaho bill attempts to erode church-state separation.

For example, under the Idaho bill’s language, a teacher who is permitted to send personal texts in the classroom during homeroom could also kneel in vocal prayer in front of her students. The Supreme Court majority does not allow this while the Idaho bill appears to. The bill refers to “silent” prayer in the title of this section, but the operative language does not have that restriction.

While the court recognized that religious coercion by school officials is unconstitutional, it found there is no coercion if the prayer by a school official is silent, did not directly involve students and occurred during the official’s authorized time to conduct personal business during the time the official is still on the taxpayer-financed clock and on taxpayer-financed premises.

But as the dissenting justices pointed out, children are particularly vulnerable to coercion, even subtle coercion, because of their “emulation of teachers as role models” and “susceptibility to peer pressure.”

HB 182 fails to recognize the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities.

As the Supreme Court held in a 7-2 decision in a 1987 Louisiana case, families “entrust public schools with the education of their children on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”

Idaho families expect the same, taking responsibility for providing their children with religious guidance in conjunction with their preacher, minister, priest, rabbi or imam without subtle or blatant religious coercion from public school authorities. From which religion will the bill permit prayers? What if the prayer is Catholic? Protestant? Jewish? Muslim? Hindu? Satanic? That path is a very slippery slope and one best not taken.

The Idaho Legislature should stop this bill and preserve the separation of church and state that our country was founded on. Many of our Founding Fathers were Christian, but they knew that it’s immoral to force your religious beliefs on others. I encourage Idaho’s legislators to embrace this philosophy, as well.

Steven Scanlin is a practicing attorney in Boise and a former member of the Idaho House of Representatives.