Arkansas House approves school-prayer bill

By The Associated Press

Editor's note: The legislation died in a state Senate committee on April 12.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. β€” 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. β€œIt's about student-initiated, student-led prayer at very specific functions. It is constitutional."

The House voted 75 to 9 to approve the bill and send it to a Senate committee.

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.