Religion and Politics
My session-end reflections about this year’s state legislature have been delayed by the writing I did in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck here in late May, killing more than 40 people.
Pundits and politicians recently weighed in with their so-called legislative “report cards” as if their political affiliation or ideology doesn’t somehow matter in the process. Gov. Mary Fallin gave the session an A, for example. Really? That should be enough said about this silly annual ritual.
I won’t rehash the small Republican tax cut that might not even make it through a court challenge or the almost complete lack of compassion among Republicans when it comes to expanding Medicaid coverage here under the Affordable Care Act. The “Fallin A” includes that and more. Fallin and other Republicans also point to so-called reform of the workers’ compensation system this year, but reform is a double-edged sword. Benefits to injured workers will be cut for the sake of business profits.
I do want to talk about one complete win this legislative session for progressives and intellectuals in the state. That win includes the demise of all religious intrusion bills attacking directly or indirectly the teaching of evolution in schools. The overall purpose of these bills is really nothing less than to replace science and rational thought with right-wing Christian dogma in our schools. It’s an open attempt at religious indoctrination, although its supporters—the religious folks—are not upfront about it.
The bills that were considered this year included HB 1674, which claimed topics such as evolution, cloning and global warming are controversial and thus teachers should focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their claims. The main problem, of course, is there’s no controversy among scientists about these subjects. The controversy is generated by right-wing Christian fundamentalists.
A somewhat similar bill, SB 758, ended up dead as well. Two other bills HB 1940 and HB 1456, or “Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Acts,” which would have brought all kinds of religious dogma into our public schools didn’t make it through either.
It might seem like a small victory, but for 13 years now the intellectual community has fought this type of backwards legislation and won. I’ve been publicly opposing anti-evolution bills here for about eight or nine years. It’s draining. Those who would turn our government and schools into theocracies are relentless. They believe themselves to be on a mission from their God.
One organization leading the fight for intellectual integrity again this year was Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. Its founder, Dr. Victor Hutchison, who is George Lynn Cross Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma, deserves yet another round of applause for his diligence in following the legislation and getting the intellectual community to contact legislators.
“The demise of these bills this year can be attributed to the large number of messages sent to the appropriate committees by national and state organizations and the individuals who responded to requests to help,” Hutchison wrote in a recent OESE email. “To all who did, THANK YOU – your efforts paid off as usual! None of these types of bill have passed during the past 13 years! However, we will likely have to continue opposition next year. The authors of these bills, and their supportive legislators, continue to be anti-science and, in many ways, anti-education.”
I’ll give Hutchison an A in my legislative report card and leave the rest of the grading to someone else.
Oklahoma’s anti-science movement rolls on in 2011. State Sen. Steve Russell (R-Oklahoma City), pictured right, has introduced legislation this upcoming session that would make it a felony to conduct research on embryos in the state.
Under Senate Bill 136,
B. No person shall:
1. Knowingly conduct scientific research on a human embryo, fetus or fetal part;
2. Transfer a human embryo, fetus or fetal part with the knowledge that the embryo, fetus or fetal part will be subjected to scientific research; or
3. Use for scientific research purposes cells or tissues that the person knows were obtained by performing activities in violation of this section.
Under the bill, anyone violating these rules would face a felony charge that could lead to a year of incarceration to life imprisonment and at least a $100,000 fine. (That’s right. Someone could face life in prison in Oklahoma for actually trying to save lives through medical research.)
State Rep. Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) has also introduced the Protection of Human Life Act of 2011, a similar bill, in the House. Reynolds’s bill would also make such research a felony crime.
The nation’s pro-life movement has embraced the banning of embryonic stem cell research as a political issue, but scientists maintain such research could lead to new, important medical treatments for diseases. There remains a huge number of unused embryos worldwide because of the popularity of the in vitro fertilization process for otherwise infertile couples. Generally speaking, both the medical and business communities support such research.
Republicans control the state government for the first time in the state’s history, and there are growing indications some plan to use this control to impose a far-right agenda.
The signs are ominous the next Oklahoma legislative session will be an ideological crazy-fest featuring bills that ultimately will make the state’s residents seem backwards and intolerant. This can’t be good for economic development here.
Here are some of those signs:
(1) State Rep. Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) has introduced the Religious Viewpoints AntiDiscrimination Act. Here are a couple of requirements from the bill:
A school district shall treat the voluntary expression by 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.
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.
Essentially, if Reynolds bill passes, schools here will be set-up to become bastions of religious conflict. What if a student’s religious viewpoint conflicts with proven science? Will teachers be able to penalize students for using religion to offer inaccurate views of history?
The bill also requires schools to provide forums that “in a manner that does not discriminate against the voluntary expression by a student of a religious viewpoint . . .”
Ultimately, the bill will make the state seem unconcerned with academic standards. Oklahoma already has well-known problems with preparing high school students for college. This bill will not only exasperate the problem, it will also institutionalize academic mediocrity.
Reynolds has also introduced the "Protection of Human Life Act of 2011,” which deals with embryos. The bill would forbid anyone from conducting “nontherapeutic research that destroys a human embryo or subjects a human embryo to substantial risk of injury or death.”
(2) State Sen. Josh Brecheen, from the Durant area, has announced in a newspaper article that he will propose legislation that will challenge teaching only the theory of evolution in schools. He writes:
Using your tax dollars to teach the unknown, without disclosing the entire scientific findings is incomplete and unacceptable. For years liberals have decried how they want to give students both sides of an argument so they can decide for themselves, however when it comes to evolution vs. creation in the classroom, the rules somehow change. Their beliefs shift, may I say... evolve to suit their ideology.
Because of this, Brecheen “will be introducing legislation this session to ensure our school children have all the facts.”
Essentially, Brecheen’s legislation could allow teachers and students to challenge basic scientific principles based on religious beliefs. Again, this type of legislation makes the state seem backwards no matter how much Brecheen and others dress up intelligent design “theory” (wink, wink, “creationism”) with faux-academic language.
In fact, a federal judge has already ruled that intelligent design ideology is essentially creationism and not a scientific theory. Will Brecheen’s measure, if approved, lead to a costly lawsuit for the state?
(3) State Rep. Randy Terrill (R-Moore) has promised he will introduced an “Arizona-plus” bill that will make the state’s anti-illegal immigration laws even stricter. In 2007, Terrill sponsored a bill that at the time was viewed has the most strictest anti-illegal immigration bill in the country. It passed. Arizona later passed an even stricter law.
Terrill, who now faces a felony bribery charge in a case involving a former legislator, has said he wants to end the practice of giving citizenship to people born to illegal immigrants in the United States.
As I have long argued, the illegal immigration problem deserves a more comprehensive approach and is actually under the purview of the federal government. Terrill’s efforts simply make the state seem intolerant of people from other cultures while making illegal immigrants go deeper into hiding.
Also, expect legislation that, if approved, will allow guns on college campus and open carry of weapons. We can also expect the latest model legislation from the anti-abortion movement.