States Of Confusion

Americans United Confronts Bills Threatening Church-State Separation Nationwide

Typically, lawmakers in Oklahoma, like legislators in other states, are responsive to public comment on bills they are contemplating.

But when Dr. Bruce Prescott, a member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, sought to provide input before the Oklahoma House Education Committee on a measure dealing with religion in the public schools, the committee’s members weren’t interested.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Tad Jones, chair of the Education Committee, was vague about whether the panel would hear comment on the bill, H.B. 2211. Prescott, aware that public comment on legislation had traditionally been welcome, showed up anyway during committee consideration of the bill, dubbed the “Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act,” but was turned away.

The Education Committee did entertain public comment on a host of other bills before it, but not H.B. 2211.

Prescott, also executive director of the Oklahoma Mainstream Baptists and past president of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United, said he couldn’t help but get the impression that the committee was bent on shoving the bill through without public scrutiny.

Had he been permitted to speak, Prescott recalled in a post on his blog, “Mainstream Baptist,” he would have urged the committee to amend the bill to ensure that public schools are not forced to set up forums for students to push their religious beliefs on others.

“This nation was founded by people who refused to become a captive audience – forced to listen to the prayers and preaching being led by the Church of England,” wrote Prescott. “That is why the Pilgrims came to America. That is why my Baptist forefathers came to America.

“As written,” he continued, “this bill puts students in the same position as the early Pilgrims, Baptists and Quakers. You will make them a captive audience – forced to listen to the prayers, preaching and devotions of people with whom their own conscience and convictions may forbid them to worship.

“It needs to be amended to permit anyone – regardless of their position and status within the school – to leave the room when prayers, preaching and devotions are being conducted,” wrote Prescott.

The Sooner State measure is similar to one that has already been made law in Texas, where it was promoted by a fundamentalist Christian legal outfit called the Liberty Legal Institute.

Americans United State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher says the rebuff of Prescott won’t turn away the organization’s efforts to derail the legislation.

Sher is not just focused on the machinations of one state legislature. Indeed, controversies over the parameters of church-state separation are often fought on the local front. This year, Sher is dealing with a raft of bills in legislatures from coast to coast that push the boundaries of religion in the public schools and public square.

“The Religious Right still seeks to instill its prayer and worship in the public schools,” Sher said. “We see bills similar to the one in Oklahoma in other states, such as Arizona, Missouri, Kansas and Virginia. This is a concentrated movement to force public schools to create forums exclusively for religious speech. 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.”

The Oklahoma Academy of Science and Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education are also opposing the measure, arguing it could open the door for creationism.

The Oklahoma bill is just one of many state legislative proposals dealing with separation of church and state that Americans United is monitoring. Other proposals include:

Religion in Public Schools

The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill dealing with “students’ voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint.” When the bill, H.B. 1135, was introduced, it contained language as sweeping as Oklahoma’s. After AU and other critics raised concerns in letters to Virginia lawmakers, the bill was amended to strike language that would have forced students to be a captive audience to other students’ religious expression.

Toward the end of February, Sher sent a letter to Sen. Edward Houck, chairman of the Virginia Senate Committee on Education and Health, regarding the bill’s provision on students’ rights to mention their religious beliefs in class work assignments.

Sher wrote that the bill should be further amended to ensure that students’ work was “graded according to academic standards of substance and relevance.”

She observed in her Feb. 27 letter, “Students’ right to express their viewpoints in school work, however, is not a license to engage in unrestricted free speech. It is critical that whatever viewpoint expressed ‘is germane to the assignment’ and that it is ‘judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate’ education concerns.”

Without such assurances, Sher continued, “this statute could be understood to force biology teachers to give equal credit to students who, when asked questions about evolution, answer with religious views about creation. It is not difficult to imagine the many other potential problems Virginia’s teachers could face.”

On February 28, Houck’s committee approved an additional amendment to the bill stating that “classroom work shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

Missouri lawmakers are mulling an effort promoting prayer in public schools. Instead of legislation, the Missouri House of Representatives took the floor to debate a sweeping constitutional amendment that says all Missourians, including students in public schools, have the right to pray.

The measure’s primary sponsor, Rep. Mike McGhee (R-Odessa), said HJR 55 is necessary because public school children in Missouri are being told they can’t pray or bring their Bibles to school.

Other lawmakers weren’t buying McGhee’s story. Rep. Trent Skaggs (D-North Kansas City) pressed McGhee for specifics on where students were told they could not pray or read the Bible. McGhee was unable to provide the information.

Skaggs concluded that religion had yet again found its way into politics. “They’re playing politics with the sanctity of prayer,” he said.

Other lawmakers tagged McGhee’s prayer amendment as a ploy to draw the so-called “values voter” to the polling booths in November.

David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, agreed, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that ballot measures are often all about drawing like-minded voters to the polls.

“If they cared so much about this, they could have done this years ago,” Kimball told the newspaper.

Lawmakers also pointed out that McGee’s proposed amendment is unnecessary in light of the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections and Article 1, Sec. 5, of the Missouri Constitution, which states, “no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

McGhee’s amendment passed the House and is pending in the Missouri Senate.

In Florida, a group of state lawmakers has become incensed over new standards that highlight evolution adopted by the Florida Board of Education. In February, the board adopted the standards to boost high school science instruction.

The new standards sparked the ire of some state lawmakers, including House Speaker Marco Rubio. Rubio, the Tampa Tribune reported, “began pushing lawmakers to continue the battle over teaching evolution in public schools.”

In an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, Rubio said the improved science standards would be harmful to parents who teach their children that creationism or intelligent design are the reason for the universe’s existence. He said those parents’ efforts would be “mocked and derided and undone” in the public schools.

In an editorial blasting Rubio and his cohorts in the Florida legislature for fanning “evolution scare tactics,” the Tribune said in Rubio’s view, “apparently world-class curriculum standards means undermining and ignoring top-flight educators and scientists who spent months crafting and reviewing the guidelines to create a rigorous and appropriate science curriculum that would bring Florida’s education into the 21st Century.”

Rubio’s anti-science efforts are supported by Florida State Senator Ronda Storms, who has introduced a bill that would allow public school teachers to inject discussion of “intelligent design” into science courses.

Lawmakers in Tennessee are pushing a bill that would allow for elective Bible courses in the state’s public schools. The classes would, in theory, be objective – but critics remain concerned.

In late February, Sher contacted the Tennessee House Education Committee that is considering the Bible-class bill, H.B. 4089. Sher noted in her letter that public schools must ensure that Bible courses do not become a vehicle for proselytism. The U.S. Supreme Court, Sher wrote, has ruled that the Bible can be taught in the public schools as long as the courses “comply with the constitutional requirement that they be taught from a secular, objective perspective.

“Ensuring that a Bible course is taught objectively and on a secular basis is not an easy task – teachers should be provided with all the help they need to present the course material in a constitutional manner,” Sher continued.

Sher urged the committee to add additional safeguards to ensure that Bible courses would be taught in a constitutionally and educationally sound manner.

Vouchers and Religious School Aid

Lawmakers in some states remain interested in school voucher schemes and their offshoot, tuition tax credit plans. Though such plans have been soundly rejected by voters in numerous states – Utah voters overwhelmingly turned away a voucher program last year – lawmakers in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia are considering them. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has also announced a tuition tax credit scheme to encourage citizens and corporations to provide tuition to students to attend private schools.

In several states voucher bills have been introduced that are specifically tied to children with disabilities. For example, in Missouri, lawmakers are contemplating a voucher bill aimed at giving autistic children vouchers to attend private schools, many of which are religious.

Under H.B. 1886, people or corporations making tax-deductible donations to the proposed voucher fund would have 80 percent of their contribution reimbursed through state tax credits. The fund would then dole out vouchers to families to send their children to religious and other private schools.

Maryland legislators are also debating a voucher scheme tied to students with disabilities. S.B. 813 would provide vouchers to eligible students to attend private or religious schools.

In March, Sher, in a letter to the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Committee, urged lawmakers to scuttle the measure. Sher said the bill would violate the Maryland Constitution, which provides that no person can “be compelled to contribute, to maintain, any place of worship, or any ministry.” Sher pointed out that primary and secondary religious schools are often parts of the ministry of the sponsoring church.

“The vouchers would be unrestricted in their use and would pay for aspects of a religious education, including worship, proselytization, and religious items such as Bibles,” Sher wrote. “Hence, state funding provided to religious schools harms Marylanders’ religious liberties and violates the Constitution.”

‘Religious Freedom’ Measures

Four states – New York, Colorado, New Hampshire and West Virginia – have considered state versions of a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The four measures state that laws of neutral applicability that infringe on religious practices will not stand unless government has a compelling interest in enforcing them.

Sher said that Americans United supports a broad view of religious liberty but will not back bills that give religious groups the ability to take tax funds and ignore civil rights laws.

“If states are interested in passing laws that truly protect religious liberty and not giving religious groups shelter from anti-discrimination laws or laws that call for access to health care for all, we’ll support them,” Sher said.

In letters to legislative committees in Colorado and New Hampshire, Sher urged legislators to amend the bills to account for these sorts of existing protections, saying without the amendments, the bills would allow an “unfettered, officially sanctioned loophole” to existing civil rights laws. Committees in both states rejected the bills.

The version of RFRA under consideration in New York, H.B. 9235, does include important protections and could serve as a model bill, Sher said.

Sher added, “Both components of the First Amendment are in constant need of support. There is, however, an ongoing emphasis, fueled by Religious Right activists, to chip away at separation of church and state. It’s vital for supporters of the cherished American right to stay on top of what state lawmakers are doing on this front.”