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.
By this, I mean that the ultimate hypocrisy of this bill will inevitably be revealed by the first student who promotes a non-Christian religious viewpoint, or even just one from the wrong sect of Christianity. While such a student would have to be extremely brave, given the traditional thuggish response and social ostracizing that would likely result, there are kids with that kind of character out there. From there we’ll likely see the same thing we saw in the religious flyer controversy in Virginia or when a Hindu tried to open Congress with a Hindu prayer: conservative Christians outraged that “religious freedom” could ever mean anything other than “freedom for Christian viewpoints only.”
What is unambiguously worrisome about this bill, however, is the part which puts teachers under threat of lawsuit if they correct or mark down a student on home or coursework. As long as those students claim that their answers reflect their religious beliefs, they can now make the case that the teacher is discriminating against them. As such, the bill essentially erases a crucial distinction between personal beliefs and pedagogical goals.
In science class, for instance, on those rare occasions on which schools even teach about evolutionary theory, students are not required to agree with the science, merely to learn about it and understand it. But now, if a teacher even tries to present evidence for evolution or contradicts a student who makes a creationist argument in class, they could be penalized by the school or even face a potential lawsuit. This threat could have a dramatic silencing effect on what subjects and facts teachers teach. Anything that risks contradicting a student’s beliefs becomes a potential landmine.
I guess now we know why the creationist Texas State Board of Education wasn’t sweating the issue of whether to include Intelligent Design in school curricula. Who needs ID when science class can be declared a public forum and students selected by the principal can lead the class in a mandatory prayer circle? Or when teachers are forced to give subjects like evolution even wider berth than before, out of fear of reprisal?