I’m giving a talk in Tennessee on Monday, and will be entering a state rife with religious lunacy. Alert reader Eliot called my attention to a new bill in that state called the “Religious Viewspoints Antidiscrimination Act” (download pdf at link). Proposed by state representative Andy Holt (a Republican, of course), the bill (SB 3632/HB 3616) prohibits restrictions on students giving “reasoned” religious answers to questions on tests or essays, or from bringing their faith into the classroom. It’s all meant to make public schools more religious.
As the Tennessean reports:
Under the bill, school districts also would require teachers to treat a student’s faith-based answers to school assignments the same as secular answers. But while the bill allows faith-based answers, those responses must be justified like any other student’s.
“This is not a bill that is intended to give special advantages to those who hold a particular faith. This is to protect those who have a particular faith,” Holt said.
Holt couldn’t cite cases in Tennessee involving that particular type of discrimination against students.
This is complete insanity. Imagine a biology class in which a student writes a paper on biogeography as a result of the Great Flood, explaining how Noah’s Ark could hold all the animals. After all, one can “justify” that, as well as many other ludicrous creationist scenarios. “Justification” does not mean “convincing rational evidence,” but merely “a plausible rationale,” and who is to say what is “plausible” here? This would make a dog’s breakfast of biology, and of course has implications for other fields as well, including cosmology, physics, and the humanities.
The paper reports further:
Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, said he feels the legislation would alleviate school districts’ fear of allowing such expressions. His bill is slated for hearings in House and Senate subcommittees next week.
“We live in a society that’s hypersensitive to statements of faith, and so I think in many ways, students have been disincentivized to make statements of faith,” he said.
As if students can’t make statements of faith in school (they can pray on their own), in church, or anywhere else! They just can’t expect to get credit for unjustified, faith-based answers in their assignments.
The blatant purpose of this bill—to sneak religion into state schools, where its public expression is illegal—is evident from another of the bill’s provisions:
Requires LEAs [local education agencies] to adopt a policy that includes the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events where a student will speak publicly.
As the paper reports,
The legislation would require school districts to implement a policy to create a “limited public forum” before campus events such as the beginning of a school day or before a football game. Select students would be eligible to speak freely at these forums, including about religion, and the school district would issue a disclaimer before those speeches.
“I think the free expression of religion extends to those who may be in the public institution of education,” Holt said. “I do believe in the freedom of religion, but I do not believe in the freedom from religion.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has of course objected to this bill on several grounds: students already have the right to express their religion privately, to pray, and to discuss their faith with peers in a non-classroom setting; students would experience coercion during public prayer if they don’t share that religion or any religion (do atheists get a right to make a statement before a football game?); the legislation would be divisive and lead to costly litigation (such litigation is a certainty if the bill passes); and the bill burdens schools with onerous duties of setting up religious forums in which a diversity of viewpoints could be publicly expressed. If you endorse one religion, then you must endorse them all—and atheism as well.
If you’re from Tennessee, the ACLU website above has a link to send a letter to your state representative, though I can’t see the link from Chicago (I think it works only if you have a Tennessee zip code).
Here’s a summary of the bill:
SUMMARY OF BILL: Requires local education agencies (LEAs) to treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint in the same manner that the LEA treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject. Prohibits LEAs from discriminating against a student on the basis of the expression of a religious viewpoint.
Requires LEAs to adopt a policy that includes the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events where a student will speak publicly. This disclaimer shall be provided at all events where the LEA feels there is a need to dispel confusion over the LEA’s sponsorship of a student’s speech. Prohibits student expression on an otherwise permissible subject from being excluded from the limited public forum because the expression is based on a religious viewpoint.
Authorizes students to express their beliefs about religion in assignments and requires such expression to be free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submission. Requires homework and classroom assignments to be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the LEA.
Prohibits students from being rewarded or penalized on the basis of the religious content of their work.
Authorizes students to organize prayer groups, religious clubs, or other such gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities and groups. Requires religious student groups to be given equal access to the school facilities for assembling as those given to other non-curricular groups.
Requires religious student groups that meet for prayer or other religious speech to be allowed to advertise or announce their meetings in the same manner that the LEA authorizes other nonreligious student groups. Authorizes LEAs to disclaim school sponsorship of non-curricular groups and events in a manner that does not favor or disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or other religious speech.