In a few days, the New Hampshire House will vote on a bill regarding prayer in New Hampshire schools. The House is likely to follow the Education Committee’s recommendation of “inexpedient to legislate” (ITL) for HB 289. Less likely is a House debate on the reason for the ITL: the Democratic majority on the Education committee preferred to kill the bill altogether rather than amend it to affirm religious liberty.
The bill as introduced deserves to be killed, but affirmation of religious liberty cannot be put off indefinitely.
HB 289 was introduced by Democratic legislators to repeal a neglected state law allowing school districts to authorize the use of the Lord’s Prayer in school, in its historical context. This seemed almost like a housekeeping measure, until one of the sponsors tipped her hand by referring to the neglected law as a “virus” within the state statutes.
That didn’t sound like housekeeping. It sounded like hostility to religion. That concern could have been easily addressed, and Republican member of the education committee, Glenn Cordelli tried to do so. He prepared an amendment for his colleagues to consider. It would have repealed the troublesome law and allowed a daily moment of silence in schools, while affirming the well-established constitutional principle that no school district may infringe upon the right of students or teachers to pray or engage in other forms of religious expression or observation on school grounds during non-instructional time.
Representative Cordelli advised the committee chairman in advance that he wanted to propose it during the executive session at which the committee was to vote on the bill. Even so, when discussion of the bill began, the chairman called on a committee member who moved to ITL the bill.
That made the difference between airing and stifling a discussion of the bill’s religious liberty implications. The proposed amendment never got a formal introduction. The committee soon adopted the “inexpedient to legislate” recommendation, led by Democrats preferring to kill the bill rather than face an amendment that would have affirmed First Amendment rights.
We hope this is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation about the rights of students and faculty in public schools. The state does not endorse a religion when people pray in school during non-instructional time. There is no need for hostility to such expression of religious faith. When legislators are ready to repeal a law that they think entangles the state with religion, they should stand up at the same time for the rights of individuals to pray. That is a conversation worth having.