Jan 30, 2013

Should public school students have a constitutional right to skip homework assignments that conflict with their religious beliefs?

Some Virginia legislators seem to think so.

According to The Washington Post, a Senate committee yesterday voted 8-6 to approve a sweeping state constitutional amendment that says “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his religious beliefs.” It also allows students to “express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work.”

And that’s just the tip of the Titanic-sized constitutional iceberg.

Senate Joint Resolution 287 goes on to guarantee individual or “corporate” prayer pretty much anytime and anyplace, including government premises and other public property (such as schools).

The amendment mandates that “citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances.”

Needless to say, the measure has the strong backing of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a leading Religious Right group. A spokesman indicated that one top goal is to get more religion back into public schools.

Now, let’s be clear. Americans United supports the free exercise of religion. We believe that all Americans should have the right to voluntarily pray, as long as they aren’t interfering with the rights of others.

What this misguided measure does, however, is try to remove the safeguards that keep public school children and governmental gatherings of all sorts from becoming captive audiences for proselytizing.  

Believers have the right to preach and pray. They don’t have the right to force others to listen to those sermons and prayers at a public school or governmental gathering. The U.S. Constitution mandates the separation of church and state.

It’s also clear what legislators are hoping to achieve with the amendment’s homework provisions. They want fundamentalist Christian kids to be able to drop out of biology class if an assignment or presentation deals with evolution. Or skip health classes dealing with sexuality or programs dealing with diversity.

And they want those same kids to be able to proselytize their classmates by including evangelistic messages in oral reports and other classroom assignments.

It’s a recipe for classroom chaos and sectarian divisiveness in our public schools.

When amendment sponsor Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) says the measure is faith-neutral and he wants to protect Muslim students who might object to dissecting a fetal pig in biology class, it doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Stanley told The Franklin News-Post that church-state separation has been misconstrued by the courts and government to remove God from the public forum.

“That is part of the moral decay in this country,” he said.

Sorry, Senator, you’re dead wrong. The federal courts have merely honored our constitutional mandate to preserve the religious freedom of every individual and to keep government out of our personal lives.

Virginia played a key role in establishing church-state separation in America. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their allies gave us the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which led to the religious liberty provisions of the First Amendment.

It would be a shame if members of the Virginia General Assembly turned their backs on that heritage now.