In the two short months that most state legislatures have been in session, a flurry of bills has been proposed that would undermine church-state separation and public education.
Parents of all backgrounds should be able to put their trust in public schools to teach children the essentials of reading and math – and let families make their own decisions about faith. But several states are considering bills that would infringe on parents’ and students’ rights to decide what, when and how children learn about religion. These bills also infringe on taxpayers’ rights to choose what religion, if any, they will support.
Legislators in Iowa and West Virginia are attempting to pass bills that would create so-called “Bible literacy” courses in public schools. West Virginia’s Senate Bill 252 would allow public schools to create an elective social studies course to “teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”
The bill would give schools the option of teaching the New Testament, the Old Testament or both, and would give students the right to choose their preferred biblical translation. The bill makes no mention of texts from other religions. Originally, the West Virginia bill was a mandate – schools would have had to offer this elective. Now the bill is more similar to Iowa’s House File 2031, which gives schools the option of creating the Bible course.
Alabama is considering legislation, House Bill 114, that gives teachers express permission to use the Bible or other religious texts in public school classrooms.
As Nik Nartowicz, AU’s state legislative counsel, explained, “Under the Constitution, public schools can teach about the Bible so long as it’s done in a nondevotional way that is secular, objective and academic. But experience shows that schools struggle to meet these requirements, and lessons involving the Bible too often resemble Sunday school lessons.”
Nartowicz pointed to Kentucky’s Bible literacy law that was passed last year and the recent investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union that found the law is resulting in proselytizing in schools throughout the state. The ACLU found teachers using curriculum developed for Christian Sunday schools, students being required to memorize and recite Bible verses, and one teacher whose syllabus seemed to be built around answers to student questions on what the Bible says about “dinosaurs and mythical creatures,” and whether pupils can take a field trip to Australian creationist Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter, a Kentucky theme park that attempts to use the Bible to prove creationist beliefs about Noah’s ark.
Maggie Garrett, AU’s legislative director, had urged Kentucky officials to drop the Bible literacy course bill last year. “It is clear that it is difficult – and public schools often fail – to meet the constitutional requirement that Bible courses are taught from a secular, objective perspective,” she observed in a letter to legislators.
Garrett had recommended that a better option would be to offer a comparative religion course that includes, but is not limited to, instruction in Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible. “The comparative religion structure reduces the risk of endorsing Christianity, promoting a certain view or denomination of Christianity, or even disparaging certain interpretations of the Bible,” Garrett wrote.
In response to the ACLU’s report, Kentucky Education Department spokeswoman Rebecca Blessing told Louisville’s Courier-Journal that the department is working on academic standards for Bible literacy classes.
Aside from the religious-freedom concerns created by this type of legislation, Iowa Rep. Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City) noted they are not without financial cost either, because states may have to research and create educational standards for such courses and make sure teachers and administrators are informed and trained to implement them. “Going down that rabbit hole of having the department establish standards for all electives is ridiculous and cost-prohibitive,” Mascher told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. She said she would propose amendments to Iowa’s bill to establish similar courses to teach the Quran and the Torah as well as establish standards for other electives.
Mississippi’s House Bill 1100 combined unnecessary financial burdens with religious-freedom concerns by requiring all public schools to post the Ten Commandments in every classroom, auditorium and cafeteria, and all teachers to read to the Ten Commandments aloud to their class each morning. In addition, the bill would have required all schools to begin each day with a 60-second moment of reflection. The bill was defeated just a few weeks after it was introduced by Rep. Credell Calhoun (D-Jackson).
Several bills with church-state separation implications have been proposed in Florida. Identical bills in the Florida House and Senate would change the state’s science education standards, requiring that “controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.” AU’s Nartowicz said the bill’s language uses code words that are common in legislation aimed at inserting creationism into science curriculum by presenting evolution as controversial and requiring educators to “teach the controversy.”
“Of course, there isn’t a controversy,” Nartowicz said. “Evolution is the only tested, comprehensive scientific explanation for the nature of the biological world today supported by overwhelming evidence and widely accepted in the scientific community. Students are free to learn about creationism and intelligent design, but a science classroom is not the place.”
Florida legislators also are considering several bills that would create a private school voucher program for students who have been “bullied, harassed or hazed.” AU’s Garrett pointed out a multitude of problems with this proposal: Removing a bullied child from a school does not address the underlying issue of bullying at the school; private schools accepting vouchers don’t provide the child with the same anti-bullying protections required of public schools; and private schools don’t have to accept any child with a voucher.
Garrett said those concerns are layered on top of other problems inherent in most voucher programs, including that students using vouchers often perform worse academically than their public school peers; the voucher schools don’t have to provide civil rights protections for students with disabilities, LGBTQ students and others; and they funnel public tax dollars to private, mostly religious schools.
“If the state of Florida wants to stop bullying in public schools, it should invest in policies that work,” Garrett said. “Vouchers do nothing to solve the problem, and they may actually make it worse. They just transfer victims of bullying from the public schools to the private schools, which don’t provide them the same protections, and leave the bully behind to find another victim.”
Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’Lakes) has made this voucher scheme a top priority. In addition to introducing the voucher plan as two standalone bills, the House spending bill includes the voucher plan – meaning that all $8.3 billion in funding for public schools is tied to the voucher proposal. Though many House Democrats called out the same problems with the voucher bill as AU did, the House passed the spending bill on Feb. 8 with the voucher program included. Its support in the Senate is less certain.
States including Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also have introduced legislation to create or expand voucher schemes. The programs go by various names – some are tuition tax credits or education savings accounts – but the outcome for all is the same: Public money is funneled away from public schools that educate 90 percent of schoolchildren to fund the education of many fewer students at private, mostly religious schools.
Also pending in more than a half-dozen states are bills that would prevent colleges and universities from enforcing nondiscrimination policies for student religious clubs and other student groups. The laws proposed in Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia would allow these organizations to cite religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate against students who want to join or hold leadership positions. The bills would essentially require publicly funded schools to subsidize discrimination.
Nartowicz said Americans United is monitoring all of these bills and many more in the state legislatures, particularly through AU’s Protect Thy Neighbor campaign that aims to prevent religion from being used to justify discrimination.
“Religious freedom means we’re all free to believe or not believe. But it doesn’t give anyone the right to act on their beliefs if it would harm their neighbors,” Nartowicz said. “Although some state lawmakers may seek to sanction using religion to discriminate, we won’t back down.”
Editor’s Note: All information in this story was current at press time, but situations can change quickly. For the latest news, visit www.au.org.