States Of Conflict

From Creationism In Public Schools To Government Aid For Religion, Church-State Battles Are Erupting In Legislatures Around The Country

Oklahoma Rep. Sally Kern, a longtime Religious Right favorite, says she doesn’t want to sneak religion into the public classroom, just ensure that teachers “teach all of science instead of just the Darwin model.”

In February, she told a local newspaper, “It’s a simple fact that the presentation of some issues in science classes can lead to controversy, which can discourage teachers from engaging students in an open discussion of the issues. Our students are not well-served by glossing over controversies, and I believe schools should develop policies that help guide teachers through this process.”

To remedy this so-called “problem,” Kern introduced HB 1551, the “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act.” The Oklahoma measure would allow teachers to offer creationist concepts such as “intelligent design” without fear of losing their jobs.

But most scientists agree that there is no controversy and no biological model other than Darwin’s that offers a scientific explanation for the development of life on Earth.

“[T]he only controversies that are in this realm are manufactured by the creationist side,” said Steven Newton, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education. “They’re not controversies recognized by any practicing scientists.”

HB 1551 is full of well-known creationist code language, said Dena Sher, Americans United’s legislative counsel.

“It’s not surprising,” Sher said. “Kern once claimed she was called by God to be a cultural warrior. And since she has been in office, she has signed a document declaring that the United States is a Christian nation.”

Americans United’s legislative department wrote a letter to key members of the Oklahoma House’s Common Education Committee on Feb. 14, asking them to oppose Kern’s measure.

“This bill would undermine science education and threaten the religious liberty of students and their families,” Sher wrote. “The likely result would be costly litigation.”

Soon after, the committee voted 9-7 against Kern’s bill, saying “no” to “intelligent design” and other creationist concepts in public school science classes.

Kern’s bill is dead for now, although she still has the opportunity to ask the committee to bring it up again later this year or next. Sher said Americans United plans to keep a careful eye on things in Oklahoma, just as it is doing in the other 49 states.

Oklahoma’s creationist measure is just one of a vast array of threats to the church-state wall this state legislative session. Religious Right groups have powerful allies in every state and are aggressively lobbying lawmakers to push their narrow agenda on all Americans.

Americans United is monitoring other state measures that would inject religion into our public schools, foster unconstitutional forms of government-sponsored religion and obliterate strong protections that prevent state funding of religious institutions, including allowing taxes to fund schools that teach religious dogma.

Here’s a sampling of the bills that raised AU concerns so far this legislative session:

RELIGION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

The Religious Right has continually searched for ways to proselytize in public schools. This legislative session, the movement’s allies have introduced a variety of measures intended to inject religion into American classrooms.

Arkansas: State Rep. Denny Altes (R-Fort Smith) introduced HB 1032 to direct the state board of education to develop and adopt curriculum standards for a public school Bible course.

Florida: Rep. Stephen R. Wise (R-Jacksonville) sponsored SB 1854, which would amend a section of Florida law to require “critical analysis” of evolution in the state’s public schools.

In addition, Rep. Charles Van Zant (R-Keystone Heights) introduced HB 309 and Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) introduced SB 700. Both would permit school boards to adopt resolutions allowing prayers at public high school events.

Kentucky: SB 56 would mandate the creation of an official Bible curriculum for Kentucky’s public schools. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Bowen (R-Owensboro), sailed through the Senate 34-1 with the sole “no” vote coming from Sen. Kathy Stein (D-Lexington), a former Americans United National Advisory Board member.

Tim Moore (R-Elizabethtown) introduced HB 169, an anti-evolution measure that would allow teachers to “use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique and review scientific theories in an objective manner.”

Mississippi: Giles Ward (R-Louisville) introduced SB 2105 that would authorize public school districts to offer Bible courses.

Missouri: Andrew Koenig (R-District 88) sponsored HB 195, an “academic freedom” bill similar to Oklahoma’s. The bill requires teachers to find “more effective ways” to teach scientific controversies. The Senate also has a version of this bill, SJR 16, sponsored by Jack Goodman (R-Mt. Vernon).

Oklahoma: In addition to opposing the creationist bill introduced by Kern, Americans United has also sent talking points to Oklahoma House Common Education Committee members about HB 1001, a “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” that would open the door to student proselytizing and sectarian prayer at school events such as graduation. The measure was introduced by Rep. James Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City).

Tennessee: HB 368, which was introduced by Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), would require state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies” and permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.”

Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson) introduced SB 893, an identical measure to the House creationist bill.

Texas: State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) filed a bill that says school board trustees cannot stop copies of the Ten Commandments from being posted in “prominent” locations in public school classrooms. (HB 79)

Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) also introduced HB 2454, a measure that would ensure a faculty member at a higher education institution is not penalized for teaching “intelligent design” or “alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.”

GOVERNMENT-SPONSORED RELIGIOUS DISPLAYS

In communities across the United States, Religious Right groups continue to fight for government-sponsored religious displays that represent only certain religious beliefs.

Alabama: SB 37 would create a constitutional amendment allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public schools and other public buildings. The measure was introduced for the seventh time by State Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville), who promises that if it passes, he and the bill’s five other sponsors will provide free laminated copies of the Commandments to schools that wish to display them. Dial said if this bill “keeps one person from going berserk or killing folks then it’s worth the effort.”

OFFICIAL PRAYER

While American citizens already have broad freedom to offer personal prayers, many state legislators still insist on passing measures that explicitly allow for prayer at governmental meetings and school events.

Missouri: The Religious Freedom in Public Places Act, HJR 2, sponsored by Rep. Mike McGhee (R-Odessa), proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a citizen’s right to pray and worship on public property, including public schools. (SJR 16 is the companion version in the Senate.)

Virginia: Americans United kept a close eye on two problematic official prayer measures in Virginia.

Virginia HJR 593, sponsored by Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County), would have promoted prayer in public places, including public schools, by adding a paragraph to the religious freedom section of the Virginia Constitution that states, in part, “the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed.” Americans United wrote a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Reapportionment and Referenda and also to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections opposing the measure. After passing the House, it was defeated in a Senate subcommittee 4-3.

Virginia HB 1409, sponsored by Del. Dickie Bell (R-Staunton), provided that individuals would be able to offer a sectarian prayer, invocation or benedictions at governmental events. Americans United wrote a letter to members of the House General Laws Subcommittee on ABC/Gaming opposing the measure. It was defeated.

GOVERNMENT FUNDING OF RELIGION AND REPEAL OF NO-AID PROVISIONS

Americans United is watching dozens of bills in states throughout the country that seek to fund religious schools and other ministries.

More than 30 states this session have introduced some form of voucher or tuition tax-credit legislation, which would divert public resources to religious schools. In February, Church & State reported on some of the biggest battles over vouchers going on in New Jersey, Indiana and Pennsylvania. This session, Americans United has also fought bills seeking to fund religious education in: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. (See “School Voucher Avalanche.” Church & State, Feb. 2011).

In addition, several state lawmakers want to repeal or alter language in their state constitutions that provides strong protections against taxpayer funding of religious institutions and religious schools. In doing so, these lawmakers hope to open the door to future voucher programs and other funding of churches and ministries.

Missouri: HJR 10, sponsored by Reps. Jay Barnes (R-District 114), proposes a constitutional amendment repealing the prohibition against state funds being used to support any religion or religious school. Americans United wrote a letter on Feb. 15, urging the Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education of the House to oppose HJR 10.

Arizona: Rep. Jack Harper (R-Surprise) has introduced HCR 2030, which proposes an amendment to the Arizona Constitution to remove language that explicitly bans public funding of religious schools. If enacted and approved by voters, the Arizona legislature could propose a state voucher scheme.

Alaska: HJR 16 overturns the Alaska Constitution’s no-aid provision in an effort to clear the path for a voucher program. The measure specifically includes a phrase that states nothing in Alaska’s constitution “shall prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.” HJR 16 is sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla).

Florida: SJR 1218, sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman (R-Rockledge), proposes an amendment to the Florida Constitution that would delete a prohibition against using public revenues in aid of any church, sect or religious denomination or sectarian institution. The same measure came very close to passing last year.

Oklahoma: SJR 23, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Anderson (R-District 19), would direct the secretary of state to put on the ballot an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution repealing the section that prevents public money or property from being used for sectarian purposes.

Virginia: Americans United wrote a letter in February to the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Reapportionment and Referenda, as well as to the House Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, Reapportionment and Referenda and the entire House, opposing HRJ 614, which would amend the Constitution to allow taxpayer funds to support the theological education of certain students in the state. The measure would also amend the Virginia Constitution to allow taxes to pay for private religious education for National Guard chaplains. HJR 614 passed the House 62-32 but was defeated in the Senate. The bill was sponsored by Dels. Thomas A Greason (R-Potomac Falls) and John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake).

OTHER ISSUES

New Hampshire lawmakers introduced HCR 25, which would urge the U.S. Congress to pass a law that would allow houses of worship to jump headfirst into partisan politicking while keeping their tax-exempt status. The IRS Code currently prohibits tax-exempt houses of worship from doing this, preventing churches from becoming enmeshed in political machines.

Many lawmakers also seem determined to discriminate against Muslim Americans by sponsoring anti-Shariah measures similar to Oklahoma’s “Save Our State” law. In November, Oklahoma voters approved an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting state courts from considering Shariah law. (The amendment has been blocked by a federal district court.) According to AU’s legislative team, because the Constitution already requires American courts to remain religiously neutral, this Oklahoma measure and others like it are just another way to fan the flames of religious discrimination and intolerance. States that have introduced anti-Shariah bills include Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

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Americans United will continue to monitor state legislatures, standing ready to oppose threats to church-state separation.

AU’s Sher reminds all AU members to keep an eye out for threatening legislation in their home state and let Americans United know if anything sounds alarming. State legislatures move quickly so keep checking legislative websites or Americans United’s website, www.au.org.

“With the help of our activists across the county,” said AU’s Sher, “we can defeat the variety of threats to church-state separation from coast to coast.”