Wednesday, October 24, 2007
In a Tuesday press conference at the state Capitol, Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Arthur Eaves introduced a plan to legally re-introduce prayer into public schools.
"We see a hopelessness, a kind of desperation since prayer was taken out of our schools, a lack of discipline and a lack of respect for authority, and I believe the place to begin is to bring back prayer to state schools," Eaves said on the floor of the rotunda.
Eaves is running one of the most faith-based Democratic campaigns in the country, garnering attention from national papers such as The New York Times. Political entertainment host Bill Maher even broached the topic of Eaves' holy-rolling campaign on his HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher," lauding the kind of Democrats Mississippi produces.
Eaves has placed a high priority on pushing spirituality back into the public school scene since his campaign began. Republican incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour noted Eaves' antics targeting religious conservative voters and criticized Eaves' plan, calling it patently unconstitutional.
"The courts have not allowed it," Barbour said during a recent forum with Eaves in Biloxi's Saenger Theater.
Eaves said he has found a way to skirt national laws separating the church from government, particularly in public schools, by allowing 10 minutes to be set aside before roll call every morning "for voluntary, student-led prayer or discussion of ethics and morality."
Eaves said most school boards, should they adopt his plan, would likely set aside the 10 minutes of spiritual introspection during homeroom class. The attorney said his plan slips under the radar of constitutional law by not requiring participation, not pushing for participation within the bounds of the school day and not requiring students specifically to pray.
"I believe that as long as prayer is voluntary, student led and does not interfere with a student's studies, we can defend the constitutionality should it ever be challenged in court," Eaves said.
Eaves cites several national court cases defending voluntary prayer in schools, such as Herdahl v. Pontotoc City School District, which ruled that students could gather at a school gym to pray before school with their parents' permission, and L.W. v. Knox County Board of Education, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, which ruled that elementary students could engage in Bible study during recess. Eaves also referred to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in the case of Chandler v. Seigelman, which re-affirmed student initiated prayer as private speech protected by the First Amendment.
"We have researched the legal position. … The courts have continually recognized the need to return to values, self-respect and discipline in our schools," Eaves said.
Eaves admitted that state board of education officials and local school boards would have to first voluntarily approve the plan. He said his arrangement had the backing of a majority of educators he had spoken to. When asked specifically how principals and district board members are accepting his plan, however, Eaves said officials are warm to the prospect, but restrained by law.
"(Teachers') bosses, as I'm hearing it, are very much in favor of it, but their efforts at school prayer have been chilled by a lack of understanding by what the Supreme Court cases truly are, and this chilling affect has been disastrous for our children," Eaves said.
Jackson Public School District board member Jonathan Larkin said the Jackson board—one of the most socially progressive in the state—would probably accept Eaves' plan, if presented with it.
"I think it would be well taken inside JPS by most of the administrators, most of the teachers and most of the students and families. They'd probably accept the opportunity to exercise their constitutional rights, which they have," Larkin said. "They are constitutionally allowed to pray wherever and whenever they want, and there's nothing constitutionally that should prevent them from doing that."
Larkin said legal issues only kicked in whenever a proposition specifically mandates a prayer or devotional session.
"Mandating prayer is unconstitutional, but if you want to mandate this free time for reflection or prayer, or whatever, I think as long as it stays within the constitution it will be received well," Larkin said.
Larkin added, however, that issues with time might have an impact. Legislators complained during the last session that schools across the state are already gradually eroding recess time to stuff in more study.
"If you take 10 minutes five days a week, that's 50 minutes. There might be some conflict regarding schedule problems," Larkin said.