Religious Extremism

Religious Intrusion

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An unneeded and overwrought bill allowing students to freely express religious ideas in Oklahoma’s public schools couldn’t even get one opposing vote this week.

On Tuesday, the Oklahoma House voted 88-0 to pass House Bill 2422 or the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, which codifies and encourages religious intrusion in government public schools. On a larger level, the bill clearly violates the Oklahoma Constitution and the basic federal tenet of church and state separation. On a pragmatic level, it opens our schools to deep religious conflict among students and teachers that distracts from the basic educational mission.

Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution states:

No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.

How can anyone possibly reconcile that clear statement with the language below taken from HB 2422?

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 . . .

The “religious viewpoint” (keep in mind this could be from any religion) could obviously be simple proselytizing on and/or using government-owned property sanctioned by government-paid authorities. A student might speak at a graduation ceremony, for example, about how her belief in Jesus Christ helped her earn high grades and urge others, directly or through simple implication, to adopt her views.

This obviously would be in violation of the state constitution’s prohibition against using state money and property, “directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion . . .” It’s an obvious lawsuit waiting to happen.

But it’s the pragmatics of the bill that should concern everyone, especially parents of school-aged children, even more. The bill essentially sanctions the dissemination of religious ideas at student assemblies and other gatherings, allows for the expression of religious ideas in assignments and homework and allows for student religious clubs and events. School districts, under the bill, “shall adopt a policy” that ensures all this happens.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if students from diverse religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism—all made sure their views were represented not only at assemblies but also in the classrooms. What about Wicca expressions and other spiritual expressions? What about American Indian spiritual expressions? They would certainly have to be allowed as well.

What if students wanted to express the views of Satanism? We’ve seen how that issue has already emerged with the unconstitutional Ten Commandments Monument now adorning the state Capitol grounds.

What should a teacher do if a student submitted a paper or an assignment that was simply a religious screed disavowing basic scientific principles? I guess it would depend on their own religious views and/or the religious views of her administrators, but why even put a teacher in this position?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the intent of this bill is to encourage the use of right-wing, fundamentalist Christian dogma as a replacement for intellectual discovery and critical inquiry in our public schools. Christianity is the dominant religion in this state, and it’s fair to say that right-wing religious folks, including many extremists, are in control of state government right now.

Let’s be clear: There’s no discrimination against Christianity in Oklahoma; there is, however, Christian-based discrimination against other religions and basic intellectualism and free-thinking.

Again, it’s depressing that the bill didn’t receive one negative vote. Two high profile Democrats, gubernatorial candidate state Rep. Joe Dorman of Rush Springs and state Rep. Emily Virgin of Norman were “excused” from the vote for whatever reasons.

Opposition Mounts Against Creationism Amendment

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An Oklahoma senator has made a fresh attempt to bring creationist ideas as a challenge to evolution theory into the state’s public science classrooms.

State Sen. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma City Republican, has filed a floor amendment to House Bill 2341, which originally dealt with textbook adoptions.

The amendment inserts the language of House Bill 1551 into the bill. HB 1551, originally sponsored by controversial state Rep. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma City Republican, finds certain topics, such as biological evolution, can cause controversy and requires school districts “to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." The bill, passed by the House, didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate Education Committee and thus was presumed to be killed for the session.

Kern’s bill and now Russell’s floor amendment are widely seen by science educational organizations, such as the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), as an attempt to introduce creationist ideas through the faux science of intelligent design as a valid challenge to the theory of evolution, a bedrock of scientific knowledge. Intelligent design, which has been invalidated by a federal court, holds that the natural world is so complicated that a “designer” (i.e., wink, wink, a god) created it.

The bill and amendment also cite the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning as topics that can cause controversy.

I’ve written about House Bill 1551 here, here and here, noting that it would make Oklahoma students less prepared for college, damage the state’s image and make it difficult to expand the state’s medical research base and lead to an even greater shortage of doctors here. It’s also a clear example of religious intrusion in public schools, which some people, including myself, see as a violation of the separation between church and state as outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Russell’s move to insert the language of one bill in another bill is fairly typical political maneuvering for the Oklahoma Legislature, although it seems especially disingenuous in this case given the public and media attention received by HB 1551. Many of those who opposed the bill were not even aware that Russell had made the floor amendment until a few days after he did so.

One Senate sponsor of HB 2341 is state Sen. John Ford, a Bartlesville Republican, who is chairperson of the Senate Education Committee, which didn’t hear HB 1551, effectively killing it. It’s uncertain how Ford or other Senate leaders will respond to Russell’s amendment.

The bill has yet to be placed on the Senate’s voting agenda so there’s time for those opposed to HB 1551 and now HB 2341 to contact senators and express their views, according to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), which issued the following action alert:

We have just found out that Senator Steve Russell has filed a floor amendment to HB 2341, a bill to delay textbook purchases because of lack of funding, that would attach HB 1551 ("Academic Freedom Bill") to that bill. Please contact senators John Ford, 521-5634, fordj@oksenate.gov and Judy Eason McIntyre, 521-5598, easonmcintyre@oksenate.gov, senate sponsors of bill, and your own senator, and urge them to defeat the amendment. Emails are especially encouraged. Mention that the amendment is not germane to the bill. The amendment will be considered when the bill is heard on the Senate floor.

Here are the email addresses for the Senators:

adelson@oksenate.gov; aldridge@oksenate.gov; allen@oksenate.gov;anderson@oksenate.gov; ballenger@oksenate.gov; barrington@oksenate.gov;bass@oksenate.gov; bingman@oksenate.gov; branan@oksenate.gov;brecheen@oksenate.gov; brinkley@oksenate.gov; brownb@oksenate.gov;burrage@oksenate.gov; childers@oksenate.gov; coates@oksenate.gov;crain@oksenate.gov; david@oksenate.gov; easonmcintyre@oksenate.gov;ellis@oksenate.gov; efields@oksenate.gov; fordj@oksenate.gov;garrisone@oksenate.gov; halligan@oksenate.gov; holt@oksenate.gov;ivester@oksenate.gov; johnsonc@oksenate.gov; johnsonr@oksenate.gov;jolley@oksenate.gov; justice@oksenate.gov; laster@oksenate.gov;lerblance@oksenate.gov; marlatt@oksenate.gov; mazzei@oksenate.gov;newberry@oksenate.gov; nichols@oksenate.gov; paddack@oksenate.gov; schulz@oksenate.gov; shortey@oksenate.gov; simpson@oksenate.gov; sparks@oksenate.gov; stanislawski@oksenate.gov; lewis@oksenate.gov; treat@oksenate.gov; wilson@oksenate.gov; wyrick@oksenate.gov

OESE has fought against bills like HB 1551 and now HB 2341 for more than a decade, and one of its members, Victor Hutchison, George Lynn Cross Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma, worked especially hard to organize and present opposition to the original bill.

National organizations opposed to the bill include NCSE, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and the National Biology Teachers Association. State organizations opposed to the bill include OESE, the Oklahoma Academy of Science, the Oklahoma State Teachers Association, the OKC and Tulsa Interfaith Alliances and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Fight Against Religious Intrusion Continues

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(Update: Apparently the language of House Bill 1551 has made its way in the form of an amendment to a bill dealing with textbooks. The floor amendment to House Bill 2341 was made by state Sen. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma City Republican. The Senate could vote on the bill as early as today.)

A bill designed to bring creationist ideas into the state’s public science classrooms failed to get a committee hearing Monday.

House Bill 1551, originally sponsored by controversial state Rep. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma City Republican, would have required schools to assist teachers in presenting information about what it deems scientific controversies, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Essentially, the bill would have allowed religious precepts under the guise of faux science as a challenge to evolution and undoubtedly allowed misinformation about global warming in science classrooms. Among other things, it would have made Oklahoma students less prepared for college.

I wrote previously about the bill and Kern here and here.

The Oklahoma House passed the measure, although more than 30 members didn’t even vote on it. It was then sent to the Senate Education Committee, where it didn’t receive a hearing on Monday. Since the committee will not meet again this year, the bill is effectively dead, according to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), which led the fight against the bill.

One OESE member, Victor Hutchison, George Lynn Cross Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma, worked especially hard to organize and present opposition to the measure.

But as Hutchison noted in an email message to those who helped him oppose the measure, “The creationists are not likely to stop.” He also noted that although similar measures have been presented since 1999, not one has made it into law.

Hutchison wrote, . . . “we must be prepared to continue the opposition in future years.”

Religious intrusion into government and schools—from bills attacking the theory of evolution to draconian anti-abortion measures—has become a major agenda of right-wing extremists in this country, and there’s no sign that it will end anytime soon.

As I’ve written in the past, a stopping point for fundamentalists may come when their beliefs and documents, such as the Bible or, say, the Book of Mormon, are carefully vetted and scrutinized. As Christian fundamentalists continue to work disingenuously and incrementally to turn the nation into a theocracy, their religion and worldview should become a major interest for everyone.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for example, was challenged recently at a rally by someone who questioned whether he believed in racist language contained in the Book of Mormon. Romney essentially avoided a direct answer, but later in the rally he did talk about serving as a Mormon pastor for 10 years.

Obviously, a former pastor running for president, who makes his religion a major part of his campaign, deserves to have his beliefs vetted and scrutinized. In fact, all the presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, should be asked hard questions about their religious beliefs given the current political landscape throughout the country. Do they believe in literal interpretations of the Bible’s Old Testament, for example, which condones slavery and female oppression?

As long as right-wing fundamentalists insist on theocracy, no political candidate should be allowed privacy when it comes to religious views.

Given the fundamentalists' push to inscribe their beliefs as science or as government policy, one has to wonder about the point of “faith” or the point of metaphorical readings of the Bible. Ultimately, the fundamentalists damage the credibility and viability of Christianity. Once that becomes clear to more moderate religious folks over the long term, there will be a correction. But, for now, the fight against religious zealotry continues in places like Oklahoma.

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