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ND bill prompted by Shanley prayer controversy passes Legislature

BISMARCK — A bill prompted by controversy over prayers during high school football playoffs is on its way to Gov. Doug Burgum.

The final form of the bill was described as a compromise by its primary sponsor, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo. Originally, it prevented the North Dakota High School Activities Association or any other entity from prohibiting parochial or private schools from offering prayer before a school-sanctioned athletic activity held on its premises.

The version passed by the Senate unanimously Friday, April 21, says a student of a public or nonpublic school can't be prevented from voluntarily participating in any student-initiated prayer at an activity held on school grounds.

Koppelman said the Senate wouldn't accept the version that the House previously passed and urged lawmakers to accept the conference committee compromise.

"The question before us is whether this bill makes things better than current law or not," he said Thursday. "And I think the answer is that it does."

The bill was spurred by the lack of prayers over the public address system during 2015 playoffs involving Bismarck's Shiloh Christian School and Shanley High School, a Catholic school in Fargo. An official at the time said postseason games are hosted by the NDHSAA, and the association's attorney said it's considered a public entity that must follow a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against allowing such prayers.

In an emailed statement, NDHSAA Executive Director Matt Fetsch said the final version of the bill appears to put into statute what was previously determined by the U.S. Supreme Court and shouldn't affect any current practices in North Dakota schools.

"It does not appear that prayer over a public address system is included within the bill," he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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