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": http://www.christianattorney.com/

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