Arizona’s children are going back to school, and our elected officials face enormous decisions on how to weigh containing a deadly pandemic against the needs of families. We are losing lives and livelihoods every day, and yet somehow our Legislature cannot be bothered to focus on Covid relief when school-mandated prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance make such an ideal wedge in the culture wars.
Rep. Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, wants to make the Pledge of Allegiance and a “moment of silence for moral reasoning” (AKA school-mandated prayer in all but name) mandatory for all students K-12. A favorite of religious right ideologues in the Legislature, HB 2060 is in committee with a very strong chance of seeing the Governor’s desk before this session is out.
The Constitution, as the Supreme Court understands it, is clear. Students can pray in public school as long as the school does not force them to. Because children are vulnerable to coercion, they have more protections than adults when it comes to state-sanctioned prayer. No child can be required to participate in someone else’s faith.
The “moment of silence” issue has also been tried before. In Wallace v. Jaffree, (yes, the same Governor Wallace who notoriously opposed civil rights), the State of Alabama didn’t just oppose desegregation. Their Legislature was outraged that the Supreme Court told them to stop forcing children to pray in school. They enacted a mandatory moment of silence to start each school day, which legislators lauded as an effort to return “prayer to our public schools . . . it is a beginning and a step in the right direction.” The Supreme Court didn’t buy it.
The First Amendment does not allow public schools to backdoor school-mandated prayer through “moments of silence.” Period.
So why ram through a law that the courts have already thrown out? The same reason this session has already seen a blitz of polarizing religious right bills that would rather give women the death penalty for having an abortion than enact any real solutions for a state that is reeling.
The answer is Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism is a radical, predominantly white movement that seeks to enact theocratic laws to merge fundamentalist Christian identity with American identity. The primary tactic to push it forward is Project Blitz: simply flooding state legislatures across the nation with more social conservative bills than opponents can possibly stop. The tactic is especially effective when the party in the Legislature knows it is on its way out of power.
So now, the Legislature is in its busiest session in recent memory, partly due to a Christian Nationalist agenda that its proponents have limited time to enact. They want to make in-person church services an “essential service” that can remain active during a pandemic even if it further spreads the virus. They want to keep conversion therapy legal even if communities choose to ban it. And of course they want our kids to learn to walk in lockstep at an early age by starting every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer in all but name.
If HB2060 gets to Gov. Doug Ducey, it’s not about whether he’s a conservative governor, because he is. Their myriad bills that highlight the Legislature’s extremist approach, but also separate them from both traditional conservatism and the governor. When they clash over, say, opening churches during the pandemic, it’s not a difference of principle so much as the governor’s punishment for insufficient loyalty to their reactionary agenda.
But in all the politicking, there are people who should never be punished for insufficient loyalty. A child who doesn’t wish to recite the Pledge, pray, or be a political pawn should not be bullied by the state.
At the end of the day, the Legislature’s job is to make life-and-death decisions about Covid, education, and how to come back from this crisis. I might agree with their decisions or I might not, but they could at least do us the courtesy of focusing on problems Arizona families are facing instead of dredging up a culture war. Whatever your beliefs, it’s too extreme for Arizona.
Luke Douglas, J.D. is executive director of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, Secular Coalition Board Member.