As we head into the new school year, the great state of Texas will start it with a bizarre new bill in force. While the bill is ostensibly to protect religious speech by students from discrimination, such protections are already law (in fact, the supposedly anti-Christian ACLU is often the one defending students who are discriminated against), and the actual language of the bill instead seems intended to mainline religious devotions led by students as standard part of all public school activities.
The pernicious effect, of course, is to change the meaning of religious freedom. Current law protects the right of any student to voluntarily attend prayer gatherings, form religious student groups, or to freely express their beliefs in any open forum. This Texas law, however, carves out a framework for all school events in which only certain students selected by the school administrators get to speak (only students that get “honors,” as defined any way the school wants, qualify). What this provides is a handy dandy way to have students preach their religion or lead the entire school in prayers on a regular and established basis. A student’s constitutional freedom to gather and be a part of religious events by their choice is replaced by a framework in which every single school event, mandatory or not, can be turned into a prayer meeting. The school needs only to include a disclaimer that the student is not speaking officially for the school (wink wink).
I’m not quite as worried this aspect of the bill as PZ Myers at Pharyngula is though. While the bill’s authors are certainly playing a clever game, they seem to be playing by the letter of the law, if not anywhere close to the spirit. And we have a good idea, in fact, how this game will likely play out.