A Louisiana Senate-passed bill aimed at allowing public school teachers to join student-led prayer cleared the House Wednesday 99-0 after a change to fend off a possible legal challenge.
The measure, Senate Bill 512, now returns to the Senate for consideration of a key House change.
The regular session is set to end Friday.
The amendment was added 68-21 amid concerns that, without the change, the law would be deemed unconstitutional.
It was sponsored by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, who is a veteran Baptist minister.
The change says, "If a school employee present to supervise the gathering chooses, he may quietly bow his head during a student-led, student-initiated prayer so that the employee may treat the students' religious beliefs and practices with deference and respect."
The Senate-passed version said teachers could join prayer groups if each student had a signed from their parent or guardian asking the teacher to do so.
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who backed Edmonds' amendment, said the signed forms would give teachers a false sense of security that they are on solid legal ground.
"They can't," he said "It is blatantly unconstitutional."
Seabaugh said, without the change, the American Civil Liberties Union and others would file a lawsuit and force school districts to fork over thousands of dollars in legal costs.
Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, who handled the bill on the House floor, objected to the change.
Shadoin said the amendment would strip vital language from the legislation, and that it is not unusual for adults to waive constitutional rights.
"Adding this language is a win-win," he told the House. "Because it will resolve the current controversy and ambiguity and still adhere to the court decisions that have been mentioned."
The legislation stems from controversy in two school districts in northwest Louisiana over prayer in public schools.
Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Dubberly, a former principal of the school involved in the controversy, urged colleagues to back the bill.
Reynolds said students traveled to Baton Rouge to support the legislation, which is sponsored by Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City.
"They are very passionate about being able to pray in school," he said.
At the outset, the often jovial Shadoin made clear that he was not interested in waging a battle over the constitutionality of the bill.
"I was asked to present the bill and that is what I am doing," he said. "I will not get into a constitutional debate. I will not take questions."