RALEIGH – A bill moving through the North Carolina General Assembly was designed to protect students’ rights to pray or participate in religious activities at school, but critics say it could create an uncomfortable environment for other students.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representing Mitchell County in Western N.C., said the bill stemmed from a situation in his district, where an elementary school student wrote a poem for a school assignment about her grandfather’s experience serving in the Vietnam War. In the poem, she told of how her grandfather prayed to God for protection. Hise said because of the religious reference, the teacher wouldn’t allow the student to present her poem to the class.

Now, state lawmakers want to make sure efforts to keep church and state separate don’t prevent students from expressing or practicing their religion.

“Coaches and teachers and others [are] coming forward who are being told they can’t even be present when students are praying or they can’t be respectful of what students are doing when they’re expressing their religious faith,” Hise said. “That’s why this bill became necessary, so we could make clear the school boards across the state don’t have policies that prohibit someone from expressing their religious views.”

The bill says students at school may pray, talk about religion, distribute religious literature, organize prayer groups and express religious beliefs in their school work.

The bill also allows school staff to voluntarily participate in student-initiated religious activities on campus before or after school and school employees supervising extracurricular activities, including coaches, can be present and “respectful” while students pray.

“The specific wording says teachers may have a respectful posture to students going, so if a student is praying or others, the teacher may feel free to stand silently or bow their head, but they can’t be involved or in leading those operations,” Hise said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says having teachers and school staff involved could lead to violations of the Constitution.

“If a group of students on a team wanted to pray, that’s fine,” said ACLU Policy Director Sarah Preston. “The problem is when you start to have teachers being involved in that somehow. It really does convey the message to the students that they are approving of and endorsing one religion over another religion, and so if you do have people on the team who are of a minority belief, they’re going to feel left out.”

“If this really encourages more of that teacher involvement, more school personnel involvement or coach involvement, you’re really, I think, going to have students with different beliefs feeling sort of like the school and the teachers are not respecting their beliefs,” she added.

The “Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Activity” bill has passed through both chambers of the General Assembly, but the House made some changes, so now it goes back to the Senate for approval, where it’s had unanimous support to date.

It’s expected to pass again and then go to the governor to sign into law. The ACLU says if that happens, the law will likely be challenged in court.

– Heather Moore