Home State Legislature Sen. Gatti, Protect Prayer seek to widen religious expression laws this session

Sen. Gatti, Protect Prayer seek to widen religious expression laws this session

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Update: Senator Gatti’s prayer waiver bill, described below, was unanimously passed by the Senate Thursday morning. The bill must now pass the House of Representatives to become law.

Just as the school boards of Webster and Bossier parishes have passed new religion guidelines to comply with the law, the law might be changing.

On April 19, Louisiana Senator Ryan Gatti presented a bill to a Senate committee that would allow teachers to participate in student-initiated prayer at school events and in the classroom, provided that all students present had permission slips from their parents.

Several members of Protect Prayer, a group of Bossier and Webster students founded in response to ongoing religion lawsuits against the school districts, made the trip to Baton Rouge to see the bill go before the education committee and speak in support of it.

“Throughout this process, we realized that we need to stand up and utilize our freedom of expression,” said Makenzie Swilley, a Protect Prayer leader and student at Lakeside Senior High in Sibley. “We can’t let our rights get taken away so easily.”

After amendments, the bill would “allow a school employee, upon request of a student or students, to attend and participate in a gathering where there is student-initiated prayer or to pray with a student during the employee’s work day, provided that the parent or legal guardian of each student in attendance at the gathering… has submitted a signed request that the employee participate in the gathering or pray with his child.”

In other words, upon student initiation, class parents could waive their constitutional rights in order to allow a teacher to pray with their children or participate in a religious assembly. However, this “permission slip” system requires unanimous consent, so if even a single parent or child objects, the teacher cannot take part in prayer.

The bill was passed with amendments by the committee in a 5-1 vote and is scheduled to appear before the full Senate today.

This “prayer waiver” system has been pushed by Protect Prayer since its inception. The group was started by Katherine Gatti, Ryan Gatti’s high school daughter, and other Bossier Parish students as a way to encourage Christian students to spread their beliefs within the law.

“Our job that we have taken upon ourselves as a nonprofit organization is to educate students on the legal rights we already have, equip them in ways to use these rights, and also encourage them as a body of believers,” Katherine told the Senate committee. “I see this as an opportunity for these students to be able to live out their faith in a legal way.”

This potential law change comes on the heels of new religious expression guidelines passed by the Bossier and Webster Parish school systems last week. These guidelines were passed with the purpose of aligning with the law, and while the language protects student rights overall, it is much stricter on faculty.

Swilley read a portion of the new Webster Parish policy to the Senate committee and said the prayer waiver bill would change things for the parish.

“This amendment [to the original bill] will solve any issue that this policy has brought upon us,” she said “It will pretty much be the saving grace for our school.”

The proposed prayer waiver reads as follows: “I, the parent or guardian of the student named below, agree to allow my child the opportunity to have access to prayer with a teacher whom he or she trusts and hereby give permission to the listed teachers and/or faculty members to pray with my child in the event he or she has requested prayer. Undersigned does hereby waive any right that would prevent undersigned teachers from praying with my child.”

The applications for this bill would go beyond just classroom prayer. With unanimous waiver approval, a school official could potentially pray with students at an FCA meeting, or a football coach could pray with his team without fear of litigation.

Katie Walker, a student at Haughton High School, told the committee that a permission slip bill will protect those who don’t want to pray as well as those who do.

“These prayer waivers would assist us in our process of sharing faith on campus,” she said. “This way, we’ll know beforehand who wants to participate and who doesn’t, and that way we won’t offend them in any way.”

The sole opposition came from Senator Conrad Appel, representing Jefferson Parish. Appel claimed he represents a much more religiously diverse area than Gatti, and he is concerned the bill could lead to unfair pressure from Christian students and parents on other children to sign the waivers. He also expressed concern that the bill would only lead to more division and potential litigation.

Gatti said the bill is a fundamentally different approach than anything previously.

“This permission slip process is a lot cleaner than the old way that it’s been handled, where it’s just lawsuits like Whack-a-Mole: someone prays, they get sued, someone else prays, they get sued,” he said. “The teacher or coach knows ahead of time if they don’t have permission to do it. This is a paradigm shift because typically, the state actor is pushing prayer on people. This is different — this is students wanting it.”

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