Council members were noticeably uncomfortable while expressing their general lack of faith in a resolution to support a student prayer and religious activities bill passed by the NC House on June 4.
The resolution was introduced by Councilman Tony Wilkins, who felt that SB 370 clarified confusion among administrators and students.
The first amendment already protects the religious freedoms of students in schools. The NC ACLU opposes the bill, which it called problematic.
“The right of students to voluntarily express and practice their faith in public schools is already well-established and protected by the First Amendment,” said Sarah Preston, ACLU-NC Policy Director. “Some of this bill’s unnecessary and confusing language could wrongly encourage public school personnel to takes sides in student-led religious activity, making students with different beliefs feel excluded or ostracized not only by their classmates, but also by their teachers and schools.”
Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter was concerned that the bill might encourage faithful students to become more aggressive in proselytizing to their public school peers.
“I believe that moments of silence allow everyone to pray; you’re not co-mingling church and state,” said Abuzuaiter. “This allows students to distribute literature. This part concerns me.”
Mayor Vaughan voiced concern that it was not the place of City Council to take a stance on the issue. Vaughan felt that the bill was under the jurisdiction of the School Board.
“I feel that this is a resolution that should come from the School Board,” Vaughan said. “We’ve had concerns over what the legislature has been doing to us by overstepping into areas of our authority, and I feel that we would be doing the same thing here to the School Board.”
“This isn’t us telling the School Board what to do, it’s the state,” said Wilkins.
Councilman Jamal Fox also agreed that it was a School Board issue, even though he expressed his agreement with the first part of the bill, which explains what students are allowed to do while at school.
Councilman Zack Matheny felt that he had to support the resolution as an advocate for free speech, but made it clear that he was unhappy about having to vote on it at all.
“I don’t like these resolutions,” said Matheny. “We bring them up and I complain about them every time. We’re talking about something where we don’t really have any say-so whatsoever.”
Councilman Mike Barber was also frustrated by presence of the bill on the supplemental agenda, and felt it was an example of the NC General Assembly’s lack of priorities.
“Here in this Council we’re doing things where the rubber meets the road,” said Barber. “I wish our state legislators spent as much time on more pertinent issues. I commend Tony for bringing this to us but this is one that I just can’t support.”
Sharon Hightower voted to support the resolution after expressing her apprehension over the consequences of the grievance process outlined in the bill.
“When I see Raleigh stepping up to something like this I’m a little leery of the reason behind it,” said Hightower. “I’m not against religion at all. I’m just afraid that supporting this with the grievance process will get people going back and forth in court.”
Matheny and Wilkins voted to pass the resolution along with Hightower, but ultimately the bill failed to pass on a vote of three to six.