Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Morehouse Parish School Officials (Allegedly) Didn't Do Their Homework

According to an article published yesterday on the Bastrop Enterprise website, the Morehouse Parish School System held a town hall meeting Friday night at which they discussed the Louisiana Legislature's passage this year of HB 660 which provides for public school officials to start the school day with a voluntary recitation of the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Judging from the photo that accompanied the article, it appears that the officials who gathered at the town hall meeting also stood up, joined hands, and prayed.

There's a bit of a problem, though: The state legislature did not pass HB 660. After Rep. Katrina Jackson learned that her bill was obviously unconstitutional, she replaced HB 660 with HB 724. Both bills dealt with school prayer, but there were major differences. HB 724, which did become law, authorizes school authorities to permit public school students to gather for prayer before or after school or at any non-instructional time during the school day and provides for attendance by school employees, parents, and persons from the community under certain circumstances.

HB 724 does not seem to have really made any change in the law. Everything that the new law authorizes and provides for was already allowed under existing law. So far as I can tell, after Rep. Jackson learned that her original bill was unconstitutional, she felt like she had to introduce some kind of school prayer bill, so she introduced a bill that outlined the boundaries of what school officials could already do about school prayer. Then, she pretended that her bill actually changed things.

When HB 724 passed I was concerned that some school officials might misinterpret the new law and think that it allowed something more than it claims to allow. I was also worried that a bill that seems to encourage school officials to go right up to the Establishment Clause line might result in some over-zealous officials crossing that line.

I did not expect school officials to be so ignorant of the law that they don't even know which bill actually became law.

I thought this might be a reporter's mistake, rather than a mistake by the Morehouse Parish school officials, so I called Dee Tubbs, the editor of the Bastrop Enterprise. She told me that she did not attend the town hall meeting, but she confirmed that a flyer promoting the meeting did cite HB 660 as the bill that was passed and that would be discussed. Ms. Tubbs wrote an article last month about HB 724 being signed into law, so she knows the difference between the two bills. However, an article she wrote more recently announcing the Friday town hall meeting incorrectly says HB 660 was signed into law. She told me that she would have the story corrected and let Morehouse Parish School Superintendent Dr. George Noflin, Jr. know that his office had made a mistake in their press release. I also emailed Meghan Morris, the writer of yesterday's article, but have not gotten a response.

I called the superintendent's office, but he was out. I left my name and number and he is supposed to call me back. If I get any clarification of just how confused the Morehouse school officials are, I'll post an update.

There are a few more points worth making here:

Yesterday's article quotes Morehouse Parish School Board President Tamika Ferrell as saying, "We are excited to have open prayer back in schools."

It's difficult to know what to make of Ms. Ferrell's statement since I can't be sure whether she mistakenly believes that the law previously required students who pray at school to do so surreptitiously or if by "open prayer" she means a school-directed recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

Superintendent Noflin is quoted as saying, "Participation is voluntary and children are to be informed that this is not to influence them to join any organizations, such as Baptist or Methodist."

That quote raises a red flag because it could indicate that Dr. Noflin is one of those people who thinks that the Establishment Clause only prohibits the government from favoring one Christian denomination over another Christian denomination, but allows the government to favor Christianity over other religions or to favor religion over irreligion. If I speak to Dr. Noflin, I'll try to clarify his opinion on that question.

Finally, I must point out that the Morehouse Parish School System was in the news a little over two years ago when Bastrop High School graduating senior Damon Fowler asked the school to refrain from sponsoring prayer as a part of the graduation ceremony.

Dr. Noflin called me back. He said that the bill discussed at the town hall meeting was HB 724, not HB 660. He said the newspaper made a mistake and he would ask the newspaper to correct the mistake. I asked him to clarify his position regarding the "Baptist or Methodist" quote I mentioned above. He said he did not think that government could legally favor Christianity over a non-Christian religion nor religion over irreligion. He said he chose "Baptist" and "Methodist" as examples based on who was present at the town hall meeting (he said the prayer was led by someone from a local Baptist church), but that he might have chosen his terms differently if a Buddhist or an atheist had been in the audience and he had known they were present. In our conversation he used the terms "Buddhist" and "atheist" on his own. I didn't ask what he would have done if a Buddhist or atheist had been present. Dr. Noflin seemed like a nice, reasonable man and he called me back fairly promptly. Since I really can't be sure how to apportion fault between the school system and the newspaper, I'm amending the title of this blog post with a parenthetical. Also, just in case the Bastrop Enterprise article goes offline at some point, I want to note here that the article goes into much detail describing the substance of HB 660 and its Lord's Prayer provisions and how it was now law, so someone made a mistake that goes beyond merely citing the wrong bill number.


iconomaster said...

You're a good person Randall

Stephanie said...

Excellent legwork!

Randall T. Hayes said...

Thanks for the kind words, iconomaster and Stephanie.

I followed up my telephone conversation with Dr. Noflin with an email in which I asked him to remember that there are certainly non-Christians at his schools even if he isn't aware of who they are, to make sure teachers know what the Establishment Clause does and does not allow, and to make sure teachers are watching for religion-based bullying and know that they are expected to combat that bullying.

Anonymous said...

This is excellent follow-up Randall! You're a great role model for smart people everywhere. -Betsy

BangZang said...

Thanks for keeping on this, Randall. I emailed Jackson soon after she introduced HB660 and asked her, none-too-politely, to refrain from wasting taxpayer money promoting unconstitutional crap. She replied that she had introduced other legislation that was much help to her constituents, and she was in the process of "revising" 66o.
These self-anointed prophets just don't go away--we need to stay on top of it.
Marty Bankson