Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This American Life takes on Church/State

Just listened to this episode of This American Life on the commute home today, and I would heartily recommend it anyone not overly familiar with the state of church and state in America. The first act is comprised of a fairly decent (if somewhat abridged) introduction to the issues, including some bits from AU's Rob Boston as well as a few Christian Nationalists.

Here is a brief preview:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act FINALLY DEAD?

After just a few minutes of mostly irrational argument for and against the rather innocuous sounding HB2211 (Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act) re-authored by Sally Kern* it passed in the OK house, 71-25, on March 13th. I listened to the debate that morning via live streaming audio. I was amazed at the total lack of rational discussion about this bill. Many legislators supported this bill as they seemed to think that secularists have taken God out of school and this would but him back in somehow. One legislator was against it because he ONLY wanted Christianity in schools and feared this would allow Muslims to preach in their schools. The original OK author, Rep. Mike Reynolds, interestingly only noted that this bill would take the burden of religious freedom related court costs out of local school districts and place it on the state government. Those against it were mostly concerned with the wasted effort of encoding existing legal precedence.

During this process I read the proposed bill (.rtf of the original form of the proposed bill) and discussed and debated it among friends. There appeared to be two big arguments against it. The first, which was heavily promoted by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), was that the language would allow any religious view promoted in class work could trump any kind of correction, including grading. The thought was that little Johnnie could say pi = 3 not 3.14159... because the bible says so and his geometry teacher couldn't say he was wrong, or "Genesis 1: God did it!" must be accepted as a correct answer in an evolution chapter in biology. The actual wording that sparked these fears are these (HB2211 Sect 4):

...students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Homework and classroom assignments shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district. Students shall not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work.
It was my understanding that this was already the case. Courts have generally ruled that religious expression in art and writing assignments was acceptable and couldn't be downgraded or censored if the work was otherwise within the framework of the assignment. I suppose I can see how some school district might be able to twist the rather clear meaning into a policy that is more suspect, but whenever that inevitable case went to court I'd be surprised to see a judge interpret this law in a way that would overturn existing judicial interpretation of federal law.

The second argument, and in my opinion the stickier part of the original proposed law, was that the model policy that all Oklahoma schools were supposed to adopt would set up a limited public forum which effectively created a loophole to allow a select few students to espouse their religious views over public address systems during school and school related activities. This was a clear response to the Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe case in Texas which ruled out student lead prayers over public address systems at High School football games. Just look at what comes up first in the list of proposed limited public forums:

ARTICLE II. STUDENT SPEAKERS AT NONGRADUATION EVENTS A. The school district hereby creates a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. For each speaker, the district shall set a maximum time limit as enumerated below, reasonable and appropriate to the occasion. Student speakers shall introduce:

1. Football games;

2. Any other athletic events designated by the district;

3. Opening announcements and greetings for the school day; and...

This brings me back to Mike Reynold's house floor comments. His comments were really the most relevant that day as this is really all about future courthouse battles. Mike Reynolds, my representative and the information systems director of Vision America, wanted this policy in place as a tool to overturn judicial precedence. With this law in place it becomes the States responsibility, with all of its money and might, to fight the first amendment religious liberty challenges. Challenges that HAVE been about respecting the freedoms of the minority from being trampled upon my the majority. Without the fear of being responsible for losing tax payer money in expensive legal battles local school boards could have ran wild with evangelical fervor in our public classrooms.

On March 23rd HB2211 was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee were it soon died, only to be resurrected as an amendment to HB2633 (.doc file of amendment) much of the legally iffy language detailing the limited public forum model policy excoriated. Twelve pages of carefully crafted wording was reduced to a three page amendment. What remained was mostly the unnecessary interpretation of existing judicial rulings with a bit of ambiguous wording that many had feared could turn the school lectern into a pulpit. Much thanks goes to the efforts of leaders and members of OESE that lead the charge to attempt to put down this bill. OESE sent out many media alerts detailing their fears that this bill was another example Creationism's Trojan Horse efforts. Unfortunately it passed 48-0!

In a very pleasant turn of events on June 6th, 2008 Governor Henry VETOs 2633 with the attached message of explanation (source):

Under current state and federal law, Oklahoma public school students are already allowed to express their faith through voluntary prayer and other activities. While well intended, this legislation is vaguely written and may trigger a number of unintended consequences that actually impede rather than enhance such expression. For example, under this legislation, schools could be forced to provide equal time to fringe organizations that masquerade as religions and advocate behaviors, such as drug use or hate speech, that are dangerous or offensive to students and the general public. Additionally, the bill would presumably require school officials to determine what constitutes legitimate religious expression, subjecting them to an explosion of costly and protracted litigation that would have to be defended at taxpayers' expense.

Until the next incarnation....

*Actually silly Sally got it from Mike Reynolds who drafted it after the Texas version, which originated with Kelly Coghlan, the Houston attorney behind the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act passed by the Texas legislature in 2007. "Our goal is to practice law by the Book, the website announces":

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

John McCain on Christian Nationalism

A question of 501(c)(3) rules of engagement. Might we post quotes or interviews of currect political candidates and allow for comment on them here without crossing the line? If not, please delete this post forthwith. Thanks!

Monday, June 9, 2008

A little review of AUOK activities this year so far.

On March 29th, 2008 AUOK hosted the "Information Forum: The State of Separation of Church & State in Oklahoma" at OCCC in Oklahoma City.
We had several very informative forum discussions. The following links will take you to Google videos of three of them. Abbie Smith presented: Should Intelligent Design be discussed in Public Schools? Jim Huff presented: Legislating Religious Expression in Public Schools. Dr. Bruce Prescott presented: Origin of the Oklahoma Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. Former Rep. Debbie Blackburn presented: Use of State Tax Dollars to Fund OFBCI Projects. The Keynote Speaker was Arnold Hamilton, Oklahoma Observer Editor, presenting a talk entitled, "A Perspective on the Status of Separation of Church and State in Oklahoma".

Attendees drove in from all corners of the state and participated in lively discussion about these important and timely topics. AUOK plans to repeat a similar forum next spring. I'm sure we can count on local legislators and activists to help raise some new issues for us to discuss then.

A few days prior on Mar 26th AUOK along with the Interfaith Alliance and many many more groups nationwide in the First Freedom First Telecast. This event included Actors, musicians and comedians joining church-state community members in 25 theaters across the country to put church-state separation on the national agenda during the 2008 election season. If you missed it or want to watch it again, the full program is available online here.

On May 1st the 2008 Interfaith Day of Prayer and Reflection took place on the south steps of our state capitol buidling. The event was a celebration of freedom of conscience for ALL people.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Greetings from Nathan Richmond

I must admit that for being a relatively young member of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State this is my first venture into blogging so please bare with my early posting efforts until I get the hang of things. There is a strong desire within the leadership of AUOK to shake things up a bit and this is a subtle gesture toward that end... I hope.

AU Oklahoma is Online

Welcome to Oklahoma's Americans United weblog. This is a group weblog that will feature entries from religious liberty advocates in the state of Oklahoma.

I'll introduce our bloggers as they come online.