Webster Parish school prayer case illustrates complexity of 1st Amendment rights

By Justin Stoltzfus | Feb 6, 2018

WEBSTER PARISH — A challenge to school prayer in Webster Parish could have an effect on similar cases around the United States.

An extensive narrative from CNN outlines the story: A student and her mother went to the American Civil Liberties Union to discuss school practices such as broadcasting the Lord's Prayer over a loudspeaker each morning, as well as posters and other public expressions of faith in the public school system.

In that particular case, the school administration decided to drop the prayer. Efforts to contact the school board were unsuccessful.

However, ACLU lawyer Bruce Hamilton weighed in on the case.

"In the past, the courts have been very receptive," Bruce Hamilton told Louisiana Record, speaking of efforts to support the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which bars the government from establishing a particular religion for citizens.

Hamilton said the ACLU has won many such cases when it's clear that the establishment clause has been violated.

He said that there's a critical difference between a student's First Amendment rights, which protect the free expression of religion by an individual, and other such rights that protect a student from having a religion thrust upon them by a school.

"We're asserting the student's right to be free from religious promotion in the school," Hamilton said.

Also, he said, some might misrepresent the legal challenges as efforts to "get prayer out of school" when the issue, he contended, is really much broader.

"That's not what we're trying to do," Hamilton said in response to the idea of "cracking down" on prayer in schools in any form.

Instead, he said, administrators have to walk a fine line: individual expression of religion is okay and protected; institutional promotion of religion, in a public school, is not.

Hamilton characterized excessive religious expression as "coercing" students.

"Public schools really have no excuse to continue to flout students' rights on this point," Hamilton said.

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