Have you seen them? Conservative religious folks these days like to push new school laws that would protect students’ rights to be religious in public schools. And it has led to some pretty odd bedfellows.
These laws, often called Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Acts, generally insist that students can’t be stopped from expressing their religious ideas in class assignments and school activities. Several states have passed or considered similar bills.
No one disagrees that students in public schools have every right to be religious. They can pray, wear religious symbols, and join religious clubs. These bills want to take those rights one step further. If cheerleaders in Texas want to hold up Bible-based placards, for example, these laws would protect their rights to do that. If valedictorians in Tennessee want to lead a prayer at graduation, these laws say that’s okay.
On my recent trip to sunny Gainesville, Florida, some of the edu-gators (ha) were talking about a similar new bill in Florida. The state Senate just approved it, and the House will be voting next week.
Opponents are dismayed. One high-school biology teacher worried that this bill would smash any protections against religious preaching in public schools. “Does this mean,” he asked,
That a teacher or school personnel can then talk about stuff like the age of the Earth and evolution from a religious perspective, and if someone was to try to counsel them not to do that, would that be discrimination against the teacher?
Americans United for Separation of Church and State shared similar worries. As they argued,
A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.
Supporters of Florida’s bill put it in a different light. Senate sponsor Dennis Baxley said his bill “protects everybody.” He was especially concerned about students such as Erin Shead. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH* may recall, ten-year-old Erin was asked to write about her hero. She picked God. Her teacher asked her to pick someone else.
In Florida, and around the country, conservative Christians are pushing these types of laws in order to clarify Erin’s right to admire God in class. But the Florida debate is producing some weird rhetoric. The selling point of these bills—at least one of them—is that they are not meant to push Christianity, but rather to protect students’ rights to practice any religion.
And one Florida activist isn’t shy about spelling out what that means. Pam Olsen of the Florida Prayer Network told Florida lawmakers that the bill wasn’t just a Christian power play. Everyone, she insisted, would be protected. As she put it,
That means Christian, it means Muslim, it means Jewish, it means the Satanic people. Because that is a religion now.
Okay, so, hrmmmmm…I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a group of Satanists really did speak out in favor of this law. Or if a group of Satanist students started a “prayer circle” at their local Florida public school.
Would the Florida Prayer Network support them?
*Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, of course.