Education

ACLU pretty much guarantees lawsuit over new student-led prayer law in Mississippi

JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill Thursday that could lead to student-led prayer over school intercoms or at graduations or sporting events. The American Civil Liberties Union said the measure, which becomes law July 1, is likely to prompt a lawsuit in the school year that begins in August.

Republican Bryant was joined by about two dozen lawmakers, ministers and other supporters as he signed Senate Bill 2633. His grandmother’s Bible, with a black leather cover and well-worn pages, sat on the desk of his Capitol office.

“We believe that we’re on firm ground here with our opportunity for religious expression in a limited forum within public schools. That does not mean that they won’t file a lawsuit, and we’ll see how that comes out for us,” Bryant said.

The new law says all Mississippi school districts must adopt a policy to allow a “limited public forum” at school events such as football games or morning announcements, to let students express religious beliefs. The policy must include a disclaimer that such student speech “does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district.”

Bear Atwood, legal director for ACLU of Mississippi, did not attend the bill signing ceremony but told The Associated Press in a phone interview that she thinks the law “has serious constitutional issues.” She said the ACLU will wait to see if there’s proselytizing in public schools before deciding whether to file a lawsuit.

“At the end of the day, do I think there will be a legal challenge?” Atwood said. “Yes, which is unfortunate because it is not the governor or the Legislature that will get sued but the individual school district and that’s not a very good way for them (to) spend their limited education dollars — especially given that this is a pretty well-settled area of law.”

Bryant, who often talks about cutting government spending, said: “If we’ve got to spend taxpayers’ money, I think we would be honored to spend it in defending religious freedoms for the people of the state of Mississippi.”

The governor said Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, would be responsible for defending the state.

“I think he’s very capable of doing that and we look forward to working with him,” Bryant said.