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Senate Bill 21: Okie Frankensteins Return To Laboratory

Image of Victor Frankenstein’s neglected child

The religious fundamentalists here who want to keep our school kids as dumb and unsuccessful as possible have introduced yet another “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act" bill in the Oklahoma Legislature.

These types of bills have been regularly defeated or vetoed in the past, but I must say the bill introduced this session, in its current form, is one of the most loony and unconstitutional measures I’ve ever read in my more than 30 years of writing about politics in the great state of Oklahoma.

Here’s the bill as introduced. Read it word for word like I did. Cray cray, 4.3. (No, wait. 4.3? That’s the magnitude of the earthquake I just felt because of the injection well process used in the current fracking bust here that’s about ready to destroy the Oklahoma economy and ruin lives. I digress.) This latest religious-intrusion bill is a rambling, overly qualified, disingenuous cartoon of rhetorical nonsense. It should be enshrined as one of the worst legislative bills ever written in the history of the planet. (Full apologies to the legislative staff member/attorney who had to put this slop together in some semblance of coherence. ) The bill’s language should be carved out in stone and placed next to the state Capitol’s Ten Commandments monument. My fellow Okies, let us now bow our heads in prayer to Our Oklahoma God of Mediocrity and forgive those who make this state a laughingstock to the rest of the world. Amen.

The concept of the bill implies that somehow our school kids just don’t get to express their religious views enough. This is a blatant falsehood. First, schools are about learning how to write and think and do math and know about how things work on a scientific level. If some kid wants to pray before taking a test they didn’t study for the night before then have at it, son. No one in the world is against that.

What the normal civilized, intelligent world is against is that kid demanding everyone else in the school say the same prayer with him publicly and then demanding an A on a test because the objective test questions don’t include opt-out references for fundamentalist Christians, who want this country to become a theocracy.

So here’s the test question. How does a tadpole develop? A. It metamorphosizes. B. It grows under banana trees in tropical climates. C. It grows one extra limb over 10,000 years. D. The Christian God made the tadpole for HIS special purposes. Correct answer: Either A or D. In all seriousness, the religious fundamentalists here want this type of testing and related curriculum in our schools, and we have to stop it, ALL of us, whether you’re a believer in a God or not.

Let’s take a look at some of the language in the bill. It really pains me to do this. It’s a beautiful day outside. I want to go to one of my favorite parks right now yet here I am reading through this sneaky and, frankly, immoral bill and writing about it. Can I get a break or at least more than two likes on Facebook?

So here’s the main thrust of Senate Bill 21, introduced by Republican state Sen. Mark Allen of Spiro, Oklahoma:

A school district shall treat the voluntary expression of a student of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats the voluntary expression by a student of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint, if any, expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

Before I dissect the above argument, let me just quote from Allen’s legislative profile on the Oklahoma Legislature’s site: “Mark is a firm believer in God and country and the Constitution our United States was built on, and praises the men and women who defend it.” The profile notes, Allen “served in the U.S. Navy Seabees as a heavy equipment operator from 1968-1970.”

I would say, respectfully, to Senator Allen that my father was a Marine Corps officer who served in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Here’s a quote by him from an affidavit when he later helped a fellow solider get the Medal of Honor for his actions in only just one fire fight in which my father was involved. My father was involved in a lot of fire fights as an attack commander in the Marine Corps. He taught me how to fight.

Retired Lt. Col. Max J. Hochenauer’s affidavit states, “ ... when the fire fight started ... the noise was deafening. The enemy started firing anti-aircraft guns as anti-personnel weapons. It appeared to be two separate fire power demonstrations being conducted at once and the noise was almost unbearable.

“The mortars and artillery added more noise. When our evacuation helicopters arrived, they drew heavy machine-gun fire from the enemy and tracers filled the sky.”

My father, long gone from this world because of war injuries, which included suffering through a massive amount of hand grenade shrapnel that was medically impossible to entirely remove from his body in his life, would absolutely oppose Allen’s bill as I do.

So you get the picture. It’s the same dreary, suffocating one we’ve looked at for years and years on the metaphorical walls of our state political gallery. It’s just a different person and a little bit different but much more obsessive language. The main point is to allow students to speak about their religious beliefs at public school events, such as graduate ceremonies and football games. Football is important in this bill. I will get to that later.

But the bill’s language is built on a logical fallacy. There is no discrimination of religion in any public school in Oklahoma. If kids want to pray before they eat their lunch at school, they can pray. Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen. Hurray, it’s corndog day! Jeb, I’ll trade you my sugary canned peaches for your frozen, processed tater tots fried to perfection by our school cooks.

If kids want to debate the subtleties of passages in the Bible or the Koran on the playground instead of playing kickball, then they can do so. If kids want to talk to each other in school hallways between classes about all the wild happenings at their Wednesday night youth meetings at the local Baptist church, then they will do so. It’s life here. It’s what happens in Oklahoma.

But what’s not right, and what will never be right, is allowing students to use public facilities to try to convert people to their particular religious beliefs, say, at a graduation ceremony. I know it gets tricky here. A valedictorian, for example, might mention their pastor as a positive influence in her life in a graduation speech, and I have no problem with that, but proselytizing SHALL NOT be allowed. It’s a sound policy to keep church and state—the “state” as in our public schools—separate. It minimizes the chance for religious conflict. It’s also unconstitutional. Why can’t that same valedictorian proselytize about the relationship between her achievements and Christianity at her own mega-church? Film it. Put in on Facebook.

I’m even more concerned about this language in the bill:

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.

As a longtime English professor here, let me give you a hypothetical but specific example of what could happen. Many of you might be familiar with the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or at least know the basic story. What if a student submitted a paper about that novel to me in which she argued that Victor Frankenstein’s fatal flaw was that he didn’t give his life over to Jesus Christ? Now, there’s not a lot of overt religious-related actions in the novel at all, and while thematically the novel does deal with the creation of life, there’s nothing in it to suggest such a narrow interpretation or to promote such a huge generalization. A Christian could say that about any flawed character in any novel or short story or poem or film. So would I, or any teacher, be discriminating against this student if I challenged her argument?

Hey, here’s the reality in Oklahoma. I, along with many other teachers, wouldn’t probably even deal with it. My comment might be: Ms. Kern, this was a decent attempt at writing an essay. You made some points about Jesus and Victor Frankenstein, who made that poor guy that he then rejected. You also have several mechanical writing errors in your essay. You should schedule an appointment in our writing center. Let’s talk about how we can schedule your appointment after class on Tuesday. Points: 70. Grade: C-. I would also know in my heart that unless this student eventually adjusted her world view she would never graduate from college.

Obviously, the bill would allow students to also completely dismiss any type of science dealing with the theory of evolution and the chemical origins of life forms by using their lazy and dumb “Christian pass card.” If I could have used such a card as a student back in the 1970s to get an A in a class, I probably would have done it, too. So, let me get this straight, Sally. You’re telling me I don’t have to learn any of this stuff in this science class. I just need to say the Lord Jesus Christ is my savior and I get an A. YES?! I’ll do it even though I’m Jewish. Don’t tell my parents, please.

I’ve written for years and years about these crazy bills, and I’ve used this same type of logic and sarcastic voice. Will this be the year the Oklahoma Legislature really passes such a dishonest and unconstitutional bill that will result in lawsuits and religious conflict in our schools? The numbers are there for this to happen in our Republican-dominated legislature. Gov. Mary Fallin might veto it since she’s in her last term and she has toned down some of her conservative rhetoric, but who knows for sure? I sense many of our Republican lawmakers here have become embittered because same-sex marriage is now allowed in this conservative state and they want some God-fearing payback.

I want to go outside, dear readers, but I need to get back to my initial point about how this bill is one of the looniest legislative measures I’ve ever read. The bill, for example, “sets forth” the “Model Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Policy.”

It makes a special reference to the "captain or captains of the varsity football team.” Note “football” here. What about the captains of the varsity disc golf team or lacrosse team or the girls’ basketball team? It refers to “students who have attained special positions of honor in the school have traditionally addressed school audiences from time to time as a tangential component of their achieved positions of honor, such as . . . prom kings and queens . . .” The qualifications and ridiculous specificity are immense. Here’s one: “The subject of the addresses shall be related to the purpose of the graduation ceremony; marking and honoring the occasion; honoring the participants and those in attendance; and the perspective of the student on purpose, achievement, life, school, graduation and looking forward to the future.”

So we shouldn’t allow creative approaches to commencement addresses? Should they all be the same, praise the lord, pass the ammunition?

Here’s one that strikes me personally and deeply as an English professor:

If the assignment of a teacher involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer, for example a psalm, should be judged on the basis of academic standards, including literary quality, and not penalized or rewarded on account of its religious content.

Yes, a prayer can be aesthetically beautiful even though I don't believe in G/god. As a musician, I've been a member of more church choirs than probably 99.99 percent of the people reading this. I love the sentiment, come here, come here, the acceptance, the softness of church. But it's too right-wing and exclusive for me. We have so many churches here and we need more medical doctors. Students would know a teacher couldn't give a low grade to a religious poem if this bill was passed.

High school football captains, prom kings and queens, prayers instead of poems, say this but don’t say that, it’s not only okay, students, but really on the DL it’s mandated you refer to Jesus Christ in the graduation address, all in a big muddle of a seriously flawed and unconstitutional bill that should never be signed into law.

The bill has been referred to the Oklahoma Senate Judiciary Committee for some odd reason. It only takes a couple of minutes to send a simple one- or two-line email to the committee members to express opposition to the bill.

Oklahoma Bill Would Diminish Science Education

Image of “Church and state or theocracy

An Oklahoma lawmaker and his supporters will attempt to pass another bill this legislative session that, if passed, could bring religious-based creationist doctrine into public school science classrooms here.

For years, religious fundamentalists here have tried to get the state to promote and codify their narrow worldviews and philosophies about the creation of life. Will this year be the year they’re successful? On the surface, it appears they have the numbers to get the measure passed.

State Sen. Josh Brecheen, a Republican from Coalgate who lists his occupation as “motivational speaker,” has introduced this session Senate Bill 665, titled the “Oklahoma Science Education Act.”

The bill, which is coded in the legalese of disingenuous and religious fundamentalist language, states:

Teachers shall be permitted 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.

The code here is the “strengths” and “weaknesses” argument, which would presumably allow, if not actually pressure, teachers to essentially refute the theory of evolution and other scientific evidence pertaining to controversial “political” issues, such as global warming. That’s the twist. There’s no controversial “scientific evidence” about these issues, only “politically controversial” arguments or rhetoric about the issues.

The intent seems quite clear. Brecheen for example, has written newspaper commentary in the past that criticizes the theory of evolution, which simply states that life forms change over time.

Oklahoma educators and progressives have faced this type of attack on the basic scientific method before, but Republicans still completely dominate state government. There’s a real chance such legislation could get passed and signed into law this year.

If Oklahoma turns its high school science classrooms into political and religious debate forums the result will be ill-informed students not ready for the rigors of college or even the contemporary world. It will mean the state will end up with fewer medical doctors and researchers. It will mean the state will only bolster its ongoing negative reputation as a backwoods place.

This legislation is an extremely anti-education bill that needs to be stopped. It has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

According to the organization Oklahomans For Excellence In Science Education, the bill has “ulterior motives”:

The bill is unnecessary, as its main points are effectively covered by existing Oklahoma curriculum standards. There is no indication why we need a new state law specifying what teachers already (are required to) do and have been doing for decades. While superficially mundane, the bill has ulterior motives if one knows the creationist code in which the bill is written and these motives have nothing to do with science or critical thinking.

Fallin Makes Some Points

Image of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin

I’m struck by what Gov. Mary Fallin’s State of the State address didn’t include this year.

Gone was the sanctimonious lecturing about how Oklahoma was going to teach the federal government a thing or two about good governance. Gone were the cliché calls for “right sizing” whatever needs to be right sized in this state. Gone were the calls for major tax cuts aimed to increase the take-home income of Oklahoma’s most wealthy people.

Fallin did argue, “Our people are known nationally – and internationally – as ‘Oklahoma Strong.’” This was in reference to our responses to all our natural disasters, and I don’t want to quibble too much here, but in all my travels outside the state I’ve never heard the “Oklahoma Strong” mantra from anyone at all, ever, and I don’t expect I ever will. Many people outside the state know us, really, only for people such as science unbeliever U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe or the LGBT intolerant state Rep. Sally Kern.

What we had then was a rather bland but competent speech, and I actually mean this in a fairly positive way, that drew attention to education and health issues, but came with the important and mostly unspoken caveat that state agencies were going to face budget cuts of approximately 6.25 percent and education funding was pretty much going to remain stagnant even though the state faces a major teacher shortage.

On education, Fallin stayed generic:

There are many things we can and must do to increase education levels in Oklahoma. Whether it’s raising academic standards to ensure our high school graduates are actually graduating with 12th grade level skills, increasing funding – which I support – or finding ways to empower parents and students, we must do more.

I look forward to working with educators, parents, and our new Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister in support of those goals.

One thing we know we can do NOW, that doesn’t require large sums of new money, is to help strengthen partnerships between local businesses and local schools where students can dual track their education and work skills.

Note that reference to the lack of “large sums of new money.” That’s the important part. I sense that as long as Republicans dominate state government here education funding will remain at some of the lowest levels in per pupil spending in the nation. Local businesses are not going to help in any significant way to solve our teacher shortage problems.

A point Fallin made in her speech that I really did like was her mention of our overcrowded incarceration system and how we need to become “smart on crime.” Fallin said:

It costs the state around $19,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court and on to treatment. In addition to being less expensive, it’s also more effective; the recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison.

This is a legitimate argument that I hope receives some attention from the legislature this year, although I’m not hopeful. Most law-and-order state Republican lawmakers still retain a myopic punitive mentality about crime, even for non-violent offenders, rather than a rehabilitation mentality about crime. Fallin, in her last term of governor, can speak as much common sense as possible at this point, but will anyone in her party listen to her and does she really even care that much?

Fallin’s call for “performance informed budgeting” and setting various goals for the state seemed overly bureaucratic and perhaps was just filler for her speech. The state has major problems related to health outcomes and education funding. It’s fine to set goals, but without a meaningful budget commitment nothing will improve here drastically.

But, in the end, Fallin’s speech could have been worse for progressives, and it did make a salient point or two.

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