Earlier this week, we promised to highlight a few issues where we expect to see the biggest fights in state legislatures this year. Just as in years past, we know we will fight bills dealing with religion in public schools.
Religious freedom means students can attend public school without being forced to pray, pressured to adopt religious beliefs or encouraged to engage in religious activities. Students can, of course, pray, read the Bible, and talk about their religion in their public school if they choose, but it must be student-led and initiated, voluntary and non-disruptive. Student expression of religion also cannot be used to harass other students.
Public schools must make sure that their policies and practices protect students’ religious freedom. For example, schools can teach but not preach about religion. Students should feel like a part of their community, not be singled out because they have different religious beliefs or none. It is up to schools and the states to make sure they meet these requirements.
Public schools serve children from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds and can't promote prayer, Bible reading or other worship activities.
Many bills in the states, however, ignore these fundamental constitutional principles. Here are some of the bills that have already been introduced this year:
Alabama HB 114: This bill would allow public school teachers to teach about the Bible or other scripture in public school classrooms. Under the Constitution, public schools can teach about the Bible so long 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. For example, Kentucky enacted a state law to allow Bible classes just last year, and the ACLU has already found a number of courses and textbooks throughout the state that directly proselytize to students.
Alabama should avoid those same problems and make sure HB 114 doesn’t pass.
Florida HB 825 and SB 966: These identical bills would change Florida’s education standards, including its science standards. They would require that “controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner.” At first glance, this addition may seem innocuous. But experience shows language like this is aimed at inserting creationism -- a religious belief, not a scientific theory -- into public school science classrooms by requiring teachers to “teach the controversy.”
Of course, there isn’t a controversy. 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.
New York A 5353: This bill ostensibly is designed to protect the rights of students to express their religious beliefs in public school. These rights should be protected, and they already are – the U.S. Constitution ensures that students can join religious clubs and engage in voluntary, student-led religious expression that does not disrupt school activities.
But the First Amendment also ensures that public schools cannot promote religion or school prayer. Unfortunately, A 5353 would harm students’ religious freedom by permitting unlimited religious expression in the classroom. Under this bill, students could proselytize during class, lead a prayer over the school intercom during morning announcements, or introduce varsity football games with a prayer.
Students should, and do, have the right to practice their religion at school, but they cannot infringe on the rights of other students.
These are just a few of the bills that have been introduced so far. We expect many more in the days and months to come. That is why you should sign up for our action alerts now. We will keep you updated on what is happening in your state and how you can help. Also follow us on Twitter and Facebook so you can stay informed and share our posts with your family, friends, neighbors and legislators to amplify the message.
Together, we can make a difference to keep religion and public schools separate and defend religious freedom.