Editor's note: The legislation died in a state Senate committee on April 12.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A bill prohibiting school officials from interfering with
student-led prayer passed the Arkansas House on April 8 after members defended
it as meeting the standard of keeping church and state matters separate.
"All of us have a First Amendment right to free speech and the free practice
of religion. At the public school gate, you do not give up that right," said
Rep. Bill Pritchard, R-Elkins and the bill's sponsor.
"This is not about prayer in school or school rooms,” Pritchard said. “It's
about student-initiated, student-led prayer at very specific functions. It is
The House voted 75 to 9 to approve the bill and send it to a Senate
A day earlier, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union told the
House Education Committee that the bill was likely unconstitutional under U.S.
Supreme Court rulings.
Pritchard said he proposed the bill because he was tired of questions about
what students can and cannot do when it comes to praying at baccalaureate
ceremonies and other events.
The bill, which lists 41 House members and 15 Senate members as co-sponsors,
stipulates that the state Department of Education, local school boards and
school administrators "are prohibited from interfering with prayer that is
initiated by students and led by students at public school functions or
activities within the state of Arkansas."
Rep. Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, an attorney, said he spent the evening
reviewing legal cases and trying to determine the constitutionality of the bill.
He called the legislation "extremely borderline."
"I simply cannot find a problem with this on its face. I think there are huge
practical problems with it. I think as applied the bill will be
unconstitutional, but I think that I'd have to give the school districts and the
classroom teachers the right to at least try it out," he said.
Rep. Buddy Blair, D-Fort Smith, who earlier in the session offered a
resolution endorsing separation of church and state that was rejected by the
House, said he didn't have a problem with Pritchard's bill.
Blair said students in the Fort Smith School District already pray around the
flag poll before school.
"We are not talking about anything in school. We are talking about athletic
events and I don't have a problem with that," he said.