Religious Extremism

Blame Shame

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This country’s prisons are filled with self-professed Christians who have committed heinous acts of violence, but few Oklahoma politicians will want to note this obvious fact.

Instead, right-wing politicians here distort and cast aspersions on one of the world’s largest religions, Islam, based on the extremely non-religious and unholy actions of one solitary person.

Why not blame all of Christianity for Timothy McVeigh, the maniac who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in 1995, killing 168 people? Some people argue he was influenced by the extremist Christian Identity Movement, and he grew up as a Catholic. But that’s different, right?

Alton Nolen has been charged with murder after police say he decapitated a worker last week at Vaughan Foods in Moore. Nolen, who had just been suspended from his job at the company, had supposedly tried to convert a fellow worker to Islam and had photos of Osama bin Laden and a beheading on his Facebook page.

Some right-wingers here immediately called the case an act of terrorism without any regard for simple logic. What would be gained by Islamic terrorists, for example, by killing people at a company in, of all places, Moore, Oklahoma? Can you imagine terrorist group leaders in Syria or Iraq ordering Nolen to kill his fellow workers if he ever got suspended or fired from his job? None of that makes any sense, and the FBI is treating the murder as a case of workplace violence.

But Nolen’s professed Islamic beliefs—he converted to the religion apparently while in prison—was enough to fire up the anti-Islam crowd here.

The so-called Counterterrorism Caucus in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives called for “public discussion about potential terrorists in our midst and the role that Sharia law plays in their actions.” Those who signed off on the statement were state Reps. John Bennett (Sallisaw), Sean Roberts (Hominy), Lewis Moore (Arcadia), Dan Fisher (El Reno), Mike Ritze (Broken Arrow), and Sally Kern, Mike Christian and Mike Reynolds, who are all from Oklahoma City.

Let’s be clear: Sharia Law, which is essentially an Islamic moral code, does not condone murdering your fellow workers once you get suspended from your job. Does that even need to be stated?

Bennett, it should be noted, has made controversial statements recently about Islam and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) even before the killing in Moore. His recent comment that Islam “is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out” has drawn national attention and condemnation from CAIR.

Even Gov. Mary Fallin, who is up for reelection this year, decided to weigh in on the murder case with some typical fear mongering when she issued a statement that said “it is unclear at this time whether the crime was an act of terrorism, workplace violence, or a gruesome combination of both.” She also urged “Oklahomans to remain alert and report any suspicious activity to local law enforcement.” In other words, people, be scared.

There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and only a tiny fraction of them distort their religion to support violent acts of crime. There is also a long history of violent extremists who have distorted or used Christianity to support their violent acts. What about The Crusades or the Salem witch trials or David Koresh? What about the former but deep support for slavery among American Southern Baptist Churches? Doesn't slavery meet the definition of "terrorism"?

Do religions, in general, create hardened dichotomies of thinking among some people that turn into vitriol when those dichotomies get challenged or are not accepted? That’s the real public discussion we should have, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon in Oklahoma.

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.

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