Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Student religious freedom act

John Lynch brought my attention this morning to HB 2713, the student religious freedom act, in the Arizona legislature. At first I thought this was like the "academic freedom" bills being pushed by the Discovery Institute (which I believe is also something that the film "Expelled" is being used to push), but those are about defending the ability of teacher to promote nonsense in the classroom, while this bill only defends student-initiated religious expression.

There is one serious problem with the bill, however, and that is its conflation of religious and secular viewpoints: "Each public educational institution shall permit religious viewpoints in the same manner and to the same extent as secular viewpoints are permitted on the same subject matter." If instead, this said merely that if one religious viewpoint is permitted, all religious viewpoints must be permitted, I'd have no problem with it. But this wording has the effect that where you can discuss anything at all, you can also discuss religion. In a science classroom, since science is secular, you can talk about religion. In a math classroom, since math is secular, you can talk about religion. That's ludicrous.

I think the bill will die, if not for the good reason I've just given, for the reason that it does also open things up to all religions and to anti-religion. If students are permitted to wear shirts with a Christian message, they must also be permitted to wear shirts promoting an Islamic message, an atheist message, a Satanic message, or a Pastafarian message. Likewise, if students are permitted to use personal viewpoints in writing an essay or giving a presentation to the class, they may use their viewpoints on religious matters as well. Again, atheism would have to be as welcome as Christianity. (And it's not that atheism is a religion, only that it is a viewpoint on religious matters.)

I suspect the authors and sponsors of the bill--State Representatives Clark, Anderson, Barto, Crump, Groe, Pearce, Robson, Tobin, and Yarbrough, and by State Senators Gorman, Gould, L. Gray, Harper, and Johnson--don't really want that consequence.

I think a few supportive emails are in order, thanking them for endorsing the right of students to argue for atheism in the classroom (and Satanism, and Scientology, a religion that Johnson, Gray, Gorman, and Pearce are familiar with, since they've previously sponsored bills on behalf of the religion).

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