Special Rights for the Religious in Public Schools

Saturday, November 14, 2009
The religious right is trying and succeeded in some cases in getting laws passed in some states that gives special rights to the religious in public schools. These special rights don't really give them any more rights than is already allowed under the First Amendment. However, these laws allow the religious to be protected in what has been traditionally a secular space. Sandhya Bathija of Americans United writes in a blog post about what is happening in Massachusetts and has happened in other states.
Bogus Bill in Boston: Religious Right Targets Mass. Public Schools

November 13, 2009
It’s not often that Massachusetts falls under Americans United’s microscope. But this week, the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) has brought the New England state to our attention.
The group, a state affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, has succeeded in finding bipartisan  sponsors for legislation that will “ensure the existing free speech rights of religious students” while they are in school.
The proposal, according to the Boston Globe, will require school districts to create policies to allow “a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious views at school events, graduation ceremonies, and in class assignments, and non-curricular school groups and activities.” The bill was written by MFI public policy director Evelyn Reilly.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen from the Religious Right before. In fact, it sounds strangely similar to a “Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination” measure that was passed by the Texas legislature in 2007.
According to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Web site, this law “does not expand religious expression in schools,” but makes it so children are “not shielded from religious expression nor exposed solely to secularism in our schools.” Perry, a Religious Right favorite, believes that mere “discussion does not lead to indoctrination; rather, it leads to open-mindedness and personal and educational betterment.”
It’s the same old song creationists have been singing for a long time. For years, it’s been a Religious Right tactic to push for teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in an effort get religion into the science classroom. These “viewpoint anti-discrimination” bills are just another backdoor effort to do the same.
That’s why Americans United warned against the Texas measure in 2007 and another similar bill that was vetoed by Gov. Brad Henry in Oklahoma in 2008. Henry said the bill, if signed into law, could lead to “an explosion of costly and protracted litigation.” But finding Henry’s veto “totally bogus,” State Rep. Sally Kern introduced a different version of the bill again in 2009. It failed again.
Six other states also introduced similar measures earlier this year, including Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana, Kentucky and Arizona.
“This is a concentrated movement to force public schools to create forums exclusively for religious speech,” said AU State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher. “Students have a First Amendment right to voluntarily pray or read their Bibles in the public schools, but some people are using these bills to proselytize fellow students.”
We already know that students can talk freely about their religion at school and participate in after-school religious activities, such as Bible study.  But the courts have always drawn a distinction when students are addressing a captive audience, such as at graduation, said Ronal Madnick, president of the Massachusetts chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“You can’t do it where people have to be in attendance,” Madnick told the Globe.
This proposed legislation specifically states that students should be free to express religious views at school events. That doesn’t sound like the bill is trying to “ensure existing free speech rights” but rather expand them beyond current constitutional parameters.
Besides, we know it would be pointless to pass a bill that merely restates current law. Much more is at stake here, and knowing who’s behind it all, we have a pretty good idea just what that is.
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