I've been to Oklahoma to speak on several occasions and know that there are lots of strong advocates of church-state separation there. AU has chapters in Oklahoma City and Norman, and Bruce Prescott, a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees, runs Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. Journalist Frosty Troy's Oklahoma Observer frequently slams the Religious Right.
Unfortunately, some of the state's legislators are – how shall I put this delicately? – stark raving mad.
Consider state Rep. Todd Thomsen. Thomsen recently introduced two resolutions in the Oklahoma House of Representatives attacking the University of Oklahoma for teaching evolution and for inviting noted scientist Richard Dawkins to speak on campus.
The resolutions, H.R. 1014 and H.R. 1015, are similar in content and wording, although 1015 focuses more on Dawkins. It reads in part that the Oklahoma House "strongly opposes the invitation to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma to Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published statements on the theory of evolution and opinion about those who do not believe in the theory are contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma."
The resolution goes on to call on the university to "engage in an open, dignified, and fair discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution and all other scientific theories which is the approach that a public institution should be engaged in and which represents the desire and interest of the citizens of Oklahoma."
As several critics have pointed out, the resolution contradicts itself. Thomsen wants an open debate on Darwinism – but doesn't want Dawkins to speak on campus.
I'd like to think this nonsense will go nowhere in Oklahoma – but Americans United is keeping an eye on things just in case. We're working with allies in the state, including Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, to make certain creationism is kept out of public school classrooms.
Oklahoma legislators can fight sound science and academic integrity all they want, but they are bound to lose. Our Constitution enshrines the separation of church and state, meaning that science, as expressed in public institutions, can no longer be forced to bow to the whims of powerful religious groups.
The nation is seeing an example of this today, as President Barack Obama is poised to lift restrictions on funding for embryonic stem-cell research. According to The Washington Post, Obama will go even farther and issue a memo "aimed at insulating scientific decisions across the federal government from political influence."
There's another factor that ensures that Thomsen will lose: Religious diversity in America is exploding. A new survey by Trinity College finds that increasing numbers of Americans consider themselves "non-denominational" Christians, the number of people with no religion is at an all-time high and faiths such as Wicca and Paganism are growing.
James Madison once opined that a "multiplicity of sects" was a good thing, as it would keep any one group from getting too much political power and oppressing others. Madison was right. The separation of church and state has given us that multiplicity.
Trends such as this ensure that foolish resolutions like the ones sponsored by Rep. Thomsen will end up on the ash heap of history. The sooner that happens the better, in my opinion.
P.S. Dawkins spoke on campus March 6 before a huge crowd. You can watch a snippet on his Web site.