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School prayer bill changed, passes

BATON ROUGE — A bill that originally allowed teachers to fully participate in student-initiated prayer underwent major changes limiting what teachers can do before passing unanimously in the House Wednesday.

An amendment offered by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, limited teachers’ participation to only being allowed to bow their heads during prayer. The amendment, which passed 68-21, also eliminated a requirement for parents to provide permission slips.

“As long as there are geometry and algebra tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools,” said Rep. Robert Shadoin, R-Ruston, who presented the bill on behalf of Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City. “You cannot take away prayer in schools.”

The House erupted in applause.

The original version of the bill had passed the Senate unanimously and would have allowed school employees to pray with students during school hours only if all students present obtained permission slips from their parents.

Gatti authored the bill after the Bossier and Webster Parish school boards changed policies in their employee handbooks to prohibit teacher involvement in student-initiated prayer during school hours. The boards did this following lawsuits maintaining that the parishes were promoting Christianity in public schools.

The changes included forbidding school employees from bowing their heads, holding hands with students or kneeling during any kind of prayer during the workday. Currently, teachers are allowed to participate in student-led prayer only if it is before or after school hours and does not interfere with their instructional duties.

Edmonds, a pastor, has been torn about the bill since it was in committee. He expressed concern that the bill would result in lawsuits against school districts and lead to closer examination of the state’s religious freedom laws.

He voted against the bill in the House Education Committee.

“It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do as a legislator,” Edmonds said of his decision.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, agreed with Edmonds that without the amendment, the bill would be unconstitutional and subject school boards to a wave of legal battles.

“Right now, it is a very bad bill,” Seabaugh said. “With the amendment, it is a very good bill.”

Rep. Eugene Reynolds, D-Minden, served as principal at Lakeside Junior-Senior High School, a school involved in one of the lawsuits. He urged lawmakers to support the bill.

“I want the kids of Lakeside to know that you support them,” Reynolds said.

Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, said she was in favor of the bill, but thought it was sad that legislators were even voting on a bill on prayer.

“We’ve stepped away from the business of the state of Louisiana, and we’re talking about something that we have no business talking about,” Norton said. “We should not have to vote to allow people to pray.”

PHOTO: Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, offered an amendment that made major changes to the “permission-slip-to-pray” bill that passed the House on Wednesday. (Photo by Devon Sanders / LSU Manship School News Service)

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