Apr 05, 2012

The wall of separation between church and state is under tremendous fire in Tennessee, and we are asking Gov. Bill Haslam to help us defend it.

The state legislature has passed three measures that undermine religious liberty in public schools, and they are now sitting on the governor’s desk. One promotes creationist concepts in science classes, another allows teachers to participate in student-led religious activities and a third allows Ten Commandments displays at public schools and other public buildings.

In a letter to Gov. Haslam yesterday, Americans United urged him to veto all three misguided schemes.

Wrote AU State Legislative Counsel Amanda Rolat, “These three bills not only pose a threat to Tennessee’s public education, but also insert religion into Tennessee’s public schools, where courts have been particularly vigilant in monitoring religious expression because school-age children are more impressionable than adults…. [W]e respectfully ask you to carefully consider these bills and their significant effect on Tennessee’s public schools and citizenry.”

In the missive, Rolat explained the constitutional problems with each of the bills.

HB 368 dubs evolution “controversial” and allows teachers to help students “critique” the theory’s “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses.” Implying that there is a scientific controversy around subjects like evolution, said Rolat, is “just plain false and bad science.” The bill is clearly designed, she said, to circumvent federal court rulings barring the teaching of creationism, a religious concept, as science.

HB 3266 invites teachers to join in student-led religious activities at schools before and after classes. Rolat said student-initiated, student-led prayer is constitutional, but the courts have held that school officials, teachers, and employees are not permitted to lead or participate in religious activities with students. “This is true,” she said, “whether the prayers take place during the school day or as part of extracurricular activities.”

HB 2658 allows government agencies, including public schools, to erect displays of “certain historical documents,” including the Ten Commandments, that are part of the “freedom and rich history” of Tennessee.

“The idea that the Ten Commandments are part of the ‘freedom and history’ of Tennessee is simply untrue,” asserted Rolat.  “The U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions make no mention of the Ten Commandments, and the laws of the state are secular, not religious.  In turn, this legislative scheme is constitutionally suspect and a threat to true religious freedom.”   

Concluded Rolat, “The likely result of these divisive bills will be litigation, for which Tennessee taxpayers will be forced to pay. This legislative scheme does not truly aid religious observation; instead, it undermines religious freedom in Tennessee. These bills do not leave Tennessee’s schools and curriculum unaffected. The impact of your decision on Tennessee’s education and children cannot be overstated.”

The ball is in your court, Gov. Haslam. Please stand up for the U.S. Constitution and public schools that welcome all children.