EDMOND — The Oklahoma House of Representatives Education Committee has just approved House Bill 2211. The bill is expected to pass the full House, and then to go to the Senate. Its authors describe it as promoting freedom of religion in the public schools. In fact, it does the opposite.
HB 2211 is identical to bills widely introduced into state legislatures across the nation, where they have met various fates. Texas’s Legislature passed it, and Texas is experiencing serious problems as a result. Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, Texas, a group of fundamentalist Christian lawyers, drafted the bill and promoted to legislatures, including Oklahoma’s. It was not written by its Oklahoma legislative “authors.”
The bill requires public schools to guarantee students the right to express their religious viewpoints in a public forum, in class, in homework and in other ways without being penalized. If a student’s religious beliefs were in conflict with scientific theory, and the student chose to express those beliefs rather than explain the theory in response to an exam question, the student’s incorrect response would be deemed satisfactory, according to this bill.
The school would be required to reward the student with a good grade, or be considered in violation of the law. Even simple, factual information such as the age of the earth (4.65 billion years) would be subject to the student’s belief, and if the student answered 6,000 years based on his or her religious belief, the school would have to credit it as correct. Science education becomes absurd under such a situation.
If a student chose to take his opportunity to speak to a group of students in a school-sanctioned assembly to tell them they must accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior or go to hell, then that student would have a right to do so, according to this bill. Especially, but not only if the student held a position of honor and authority (class officer, team captain), and was speaking in his or her official capacity, the school has clearly established religion in violation of both the U.S. and Oklahoma constitutions.
The same would be true if the student chose to tell the assembled students that they would not go to hell, that there is no hell and that those who promote belief in hell are liars. What if a Wican student chose to tell the assembled students that the only true God is Nature, or a member of a radical religious sect advocated assassination in order to preserve God’s will? According to this bill, those students would be free, in a forum supported by the school, to do so. Any or all of these scenarios would lead to lawsuits.
The consequence of the bill will be to create havoc and promote discord in the public schools. That’s already happening in Texas, where the bill has been law for several months. Denton, Texas Independent School District, responding to the law, has decreed that no students may ever speak in assembly, to graduation, to the crowd at an athletic event or in other group function. As reported in The Denton Record Chronicle Sept. 1, the superintendent there said if no students are ever allowed to speak, then there will be no discrimination and no basis for lawsuits. Another school superintendent in Texas said, “… we’re just trying to have school, and I think this is a complicating factor” as reported by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that has spoken out against the bill.
What administrators fear as the law is implemented is a barrage of lawsuits. School administrators in Texas are frightened. They fear lawsuits from students who feel that the school is forcing them to endure religious activity they do not agree with nor want to have imposed on them. They also fear lawsuits from students who claim they have not been properly allowed the forum the law requires. They’ll be damned (or sued) if they do, damned (or sued) if they don’t. Oklahoma will experience the same.
Students already have the constitutional freedom to organize religious groups, to pray or to do whatever religious activity they want at school, so long as they do not impose that on others or use public resources to support their religion. This bill adds nothing in the way of religious freedom. What it will do is create a stew of undesirable litigation relating to an important constitutional issue — separation of church and state.
Both The Oklahoma Academy of Science and Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education have asked for the bill’s defeat. I agree. Don’t we have better things to do with public money, than to give it to lawyers and courts over such matters?
DAVE McNEELY is an Edmond resident.