By MARY BETH SCHNEIDER The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- The chairman of the Senate education committee, who last year unsuccessfully sought the teaching of creationism in schools, now wants public schools to have the option of beginning each day with the Lord's Prayer.
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has filed a bill that would allow school districts to require the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, though individual students could opt out if they or their parents preferred.
With Republicans holding overwhelming majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate and former U.S. Rep. Mike Pence preparing to take office as governor, some critics have anticipated an easy path for certain socially conservative issues in this year's legislature.
But Pence, also a Republican, has said his focus is on the issues of taxes, education and jobs, not social issues. And House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has echoed that, saying Republicans in the House "all understand our focus. ... We're going to focus on what's important: budget integrity, job creation and improving education."
Read the full language of the proposed bill on the Indiana Government's website:http://www.in.gov/legislative/bills/2013/IN/IN0023.1.html
Kruse's bill may not have much chance of success in the legislative session that begins Monday.
Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has assigned it to the Senate's rules and legislative procedure committee, often a burial ground for bills.
"My initial instincts were that it was probably unconstitutional," Long, an attorney, said.
The Senate legal staff agreed, he said.
"It's a clear violation of the interpretation of the First Amendment by the United States Supreme Court," Long said, adding: "It's not a personal opinion on my part."
Kruse, he said, may have filed the bill "to make a statement, not expecting a hearing."
Kruse did not return calls seeking comment.
Andrew Seidel, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group that fights what it sees as incursions on the separation of church and state, said Long made the right call.
"This is so blatantly unconstitutional, it's amazing," Seidel said.
And, he said, allowing students to opt out of the prayer doesn't make the bill constitutional.
"Courts have addressed that before," he said. "Voluntariness does not excuse a constitutional violation."
He cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that found that prayers at public school graduation ceremonies are unconstitutional even if students can opt out "because it entangles government with religion."
Besides, Seidel said, prayer already is voluntary in schools, as the right of any student to individually pray is protected.
"The only purpose of this law is to encourage prayer out of students and to ostracize students who may not want to pray," he said. "Bullying is a huge issue in schools right now, and to have students have to out themselves (by refusing to go along with a prayer they don't believe in) is going to open the whole atheist community up to bullying. It's very disturbing."
Seidel said he expected the bill is spurred by the passage in Florida of a law that allows local school boards to pass a resolution allowing students to choose to have prayer before an activity.
But, he said, that hasn't been challenged yet in courts for one simple reason: No school district has adopted the resolution, fearing the matter would end up in costly litigation.
Kruse, a soft-spoken conservative who has been in the legislature since 1999, has already stirred controversy for the coming legislative session. In December, Kruse said he would not reintroduce his legislation to teach creationism alongside evolution but instead planned to seek a "truth in education" bill. That, he said, would require teachers to provide evidence if students challenge their science lessons.
"If a student thinks something isn't true, then they can question the teacher, and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true," he said then.