Group says it will defend new Miss. prayer law

JACKSON – (AP) A nonprofit conservative group says it will provide free legal representation to Mississippi schools or districts if a new school prayer law is challenged in court.

Liberty Counsel attorney Steve Crampton told The Associated Press that the group believes the law is “perfectly within the bounds of the First Amendment.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed the law in late March, and it takes effect July 1. It says all Mississippi school districts must adopt a policy to allow a “limited public forum” at school events such as football games or morning announcements, to let students express religious beliefs.

Bear Atwood, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, said she thinks the law “has serious constitutional issues.” She said the ACLU is likely to file a lawsuit to challenge it, if there are reports that proselytizing is taking place in public schools.

Bryant said that Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, would be responsible for defending the state. Bryant also said: “If we’ve got to spend taxpayers’ money, I think we would be honored to spend it in defending religious freedoms for the people of the state of Mississippi.”

Crampton said: “Liberty Counsel has offered to defend any school or district that is sued for an alleged violation of the Student Religious Liberties Act, at no cost to the school or the district.”

Liberty Counsel has offices in Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and has been involved in other conservative causes in Mississippi. Crampton was among the supporters of a life-at-fertilization amendment that 58 percent of Mississippi voters rejected in 2011, and he issued a statement March 5 supporting a similar new initiative that’s being launched. On behalf of Liberty Counsel, Crampton also offered free legal representation in 2010 to the Itawamba County Schools when an 18-year-old lesbian student challenged the district’s ban on same-sex prom dates.

Crampton said the school prayer law clarifies students’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly.

“It protects schools from baseless charges of violating the Establishment Clause, and clarifies when a limited public forum for the exercise of private speech exists,” he said. “It is, therefore, both consistent with the First Amendment and a help to school officials and students by explaining where the boundaries are in an otherwise confusing area of the law.”

Atwood said the ACLU is likely to file a lawsuit during the coming school year.

“We’re going to spend some time this summer working with school board attorneys and superintendents and see if there is any way for them to avoid being sued,” she said. “I think the way this law is written is just fraught with danger for the schools.”

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