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MS Passes ‘Student Religious Freedom’ Bill

The Mississippi state legislature just passed, by an overwhelming margin, SB 2633, the the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013. Much of the bill is pointless, merely restating what the law already protects, but there’s one section that is quite bothersome.

The bill says that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion and are allowed to express religious viewpoints on homework assignments and elsewhere, and are allowed to form religious clubs with all the same rights as any other non-curricular club. Yawn. Federal law has long protected those things already, so that’s pretty pointless. But the bill goes further than that and seems to set up a designated time for students to talk about religion on a daily basis with a captive audience. In the model policy included for school districts to adopt, they urge the following:

The school district hereby creates a limited public forum for 118 student speakers at all school events at which a student is to publicly speak. For each speaker, the district shall set a maximum time limit reasonable and appropriate to the occasion. Student speakers shall introduce:

(a) Football games;
(b) Any other athletic events designated by the district;
(c) Opening announcements and greetings for the school day; and
(d) Any additional events designated by the district, which may include, without limitation, assemblies and pep rallies.

So they’re seeking to create more opportunities for student speakers to be able to proselytize to a captive audience, including every single day when announcements are made to the school over the PA system. The bill declares every such situation to be a limited public forum, meaning that anything said during that time is the expression of the person speaking rather than the school, and it means that the school cannot discriminate against any form of expression (other than obscene or illegal expressions). The model policy also sets limits on which students are allowed to introduce these events:

Only those students in the highest two (2) grade levels of the school and who hold one (1) of the following positions of honor based on neutral criteria are eligible to use the limited public forum: student council officers, class officers of the highest grade level in the school, captains of the football team, and other students holding positions of honor as the school district may designate.

Though this pretends to be “neutral criteria,” in practice it will ensure that the students picked to speak are part of the dominant Christian majority and thus that only Christianity will be advocated during these newly designated “introductions.” And you know damn well that there will be particular effort made to make sure that the school’s loudest Christian students will be the ones picked. If just once, a student got up to speak and offered a prayer to Allah or Vishnu, this whole limited public forum rationale would crumble into dust immediately and there would be outrage at the notion that a student could push their religion on other students in this manner (such rules only apply to non-Christian religions, of course).

We all know exactly what this is. It’s an attempt to have the school proselytize to students, but to provide legal cover so that the school can say they have nothing to do with it. After all, it’s a limited public forum. And the speakers were chosen by neutral criteria. The fact that the only ones who ever actually do proselytize at these events are Christians is mere happenstance.

Comments

  1. Mr Ed says

    captains of the football team

    I hope they have gender neutral standards for appointing football captains.

  2. Rip Steakface says

    Basketball, baseball, fastpitch, soccer, track, and swim captains are also apparently inferior to the mighty football captain. It’s a shame that football is worshiped like it is in what are allegedly institutions of education, both universities and high schools. Hell, what about band? Do we get any mention? Nothing for drum majors, for section leaders? Perhaps the timpanist should get some time to proselytize!

    /frustrated percussionist

  3. eric says

    And you know damn well that there will be particular effort made to make sure that the school’s loudest Christian students will be the ones picked. If just once, a student got up to speak and offered a prayer to Allah or Vishnu, this whole limited public forum rationale would crumble into dust immediately and there would be outrage at the notion that a student could push their religion on other students in this manner (such rules only apply to non-Christian religions, of course).

    Note the system seems custom-designed to prevent this from happening. When a school has a senior class president who seems likely to protest the system by thanking Visnu, then the principle can just pick the football captain every time instead. You basically only need one junior or senior religious fundie that the school designates as ‘honored,’ and the administration can cherry pick them to give every address. OTOH, the secularists would have to convince every junior and senior in the school to protest the system before they could be assured of a protest speech happening – and even then, since this is merely a recommendation, the school administration could just shut it down for a year or two until they get a willing student.

  4. says

    Okay. What’s the quickest and most effective way to get non-Christian and secular MS public school students aware of this, and encourage them to seek out of one of these positions and use it to offer up a prayer to Allah, Satan, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  5. Zambezi says

    All the enumerated positions are essentially popularity contests among the students. Any potential speaker is pre-filtered through some sort of election process, so only majority viewpoints will survive to be eligible to speak. By design, this limited public forum is not viewpoint-neutral.

  6. eric says

    Basketball, baseball, fastpitch, soccer, track, and swim captains are also apparently inferior to the mighty football captain

    Not really a good point because if this comes up, the bill’s defenders will simply concede it and say the football captain was improperly highlighted, and all captains for both men’s and women’s (and mixed) events are allowed. Correcting this does not ‘unrig’ the system for Christians, so they will probably happily let you make this point.

    Debaters and presenters will sometimes put something in that begs for a (figurative, not literal) softball question. Give your audience something easy to ask, it’ll make them feel smart and will distract them from asking something more difficult. The ‘football captain’ thing begs for a protest. Its a trap. Focus on the ability of the administration to selectively pick the students who have access to this ‘limited public forum.’ That’s where the idea of it actually being public falls apart, and the religious discrimination sneaks in.

  7. says

    If they created a limited public forum, aren’t they just askign to allow Bong Hits 4 Jesus? I don’t know about Mississippi, but if the Captain of our football team had been allowed to say what he wanted on the announcements, he would have said something similar.

  8. DaveL says

    Basketball, baseball, fastpitch, soccer, track, and swim captains are also apparently inferior to the mighty football captain.

    Isn’t it fascinating how the captain of the football team is considered in our culture as a natural choice to give a public address to students, but not the captain of the debate team?

  9. says

    DaveL, if Jeebus spends so much of his time ensuring that the right football team wins each game, then surely he also picks team captains. That makes the football captain a logical choice. As well as the head cheerleader he’s banging.

  10. iknklast says

    Of course, there is another feature on that which might be a problem that Ed just passed over. Although there are provisions which allow students to give religious answers on assignments, this probably means they have the right to give a religious answer without having it marked wrong. I’d be interested to know if that was the case.

    Students in my science classes can give whatever answer they want – scientific, religious, new age, or any sort of non-sequitor that enters their mind. That’s not a problem. What is a problem is when I’m told I have to accept those answers that are religious because the students really believe them. Some of my students may believe some of the other goofy things they say, too, at least at the moment they say them. This is no good reason for accepting an answer.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    When does the captain of the quidditch get to deliver an address on the mystic arts?

  12. Michael Heath says

    DaveL writes:

    Isn’t it fascinating how the captain of the football team is considered in our culture as a natural choice to give a public address to students, but not the captain of the debate team?

    Um . . . yeah . . . ya know . . . we rule!

    vs.

    So, thermonuclear war on a global scale!

  13. says

    I think you’ve missed an implication of a couple of those “long protected” clauses, taken together:

    “…cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion and are allowed to express religious viewpoints on homework assignments …”

    So in science homework it’s fine to answer a question on the age of the earth by stating that it’s 6,000 years old.

    Ughh.

  14. kylawyer says

    “Isn’t it fascinating how the captain of the football team is considered in our culture as a natural choice to give a public address to students, but not the captain of the debate team?”

    “Basketball, baseball, fastpitch, soccer, track, and swim captains are also apparently inferior to the mighty football captain.”

    That’s because football is the most military like of sports. And if there’s one thing that is big in the South and southern culture it’s militarism. Fact is of the top 20 states where military recruits come from eight are southern states. And we all know how gawd goes with militarism.

  15. D. C. Sessions says

    I want to make sure I get this right:

    It’s a “limited public forum” and thus not subject to Establishment Clause challenge if the Administration picks a speaker from a short list created under its authority [1]?

    If this flies, I can see an easy way out for Judge Roy BeanMoore.

    [1] All of the entities listed (e.g. “student government”) are already recognized by buckets of case law as existing only at the will of the school, and thus the State; like the “student” newspaper, the Administration can exercise direct authority over them, to the extent of dissolving them at will.

  16. eric says

    @13:

    Of course, there is another feature on that which might be a problem that Ed just passed over. Although there are provisions which allow students to give religious answers on assignments, this probably means they have the right to give a religious answer without having it marked wrong. I’d be interested to know if that was the case.

    My understanding is that this is toothless because it doesn’t say they can give religious answers to questions, it says they can talk about their religion in addition to doing the assignment, without penalty. So if you ask for a 500 word essay on Shakespeare, they can give you 500 words on Shakespeare, another 200 on why he’s going to hell, and you just grade the former (and don’t even bother reading the latter). Or, for geology, if you ask the age of the earth, they can answer something like “mainstream geological dating places the age at 4.5B years, but I theologically think it’s no older than Tuesday,” and you can’t dock them on it. According to the law, they’re still responsible for learning and using the material on tests. But you can’t give them points off for adding the entirely unnecessary “Praise Jesus!” to the bottom of the page. Which you never were supposed to do anyway, which is why that part of the law is pointless.

    ***

    @18: yep, I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of strongest legal challenge. “Limited public forum” does no equal ‘the government decides who is qualified to speak and then selects who among the qualified can speak.”

  17. Abby Normal says

    “Limited public forum” does no equal ‘the government decides who is qualified to speak and then selects who among the qualified can speak.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what “limited” means. However, the selection criteria must be neutral with regard to protected classes, i.e. nondiscriminatory.

  18. D. C. Sessions says

    @21:

    Seriously? What, then, is the process for deciding who gets to put up displays on the statehouse lawn in December?

  19. jaytheostrich says

    @5: “encourage them to seek out of one of these positions and use it to offer up a prayer to Allah, Satan, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?”

    Gretchen, What do you have against Batman and Joe Pesci? Blasphemer!

  20. whheydt says

    Re: #11…

    One would think that winning a National Merit Scholarship would constitute a “position of honor” pretty much automatically. If so, then I’d’ve had a shot at it. (But in the school in California in 1966 that I was in, no one was trying these shenanigans.)

  21. Abby Normal says

    @22:

    I don’t know, but I assume by now they’ve come up with a neutral one that works for that type of forum. What’s your point and how does it apply to this type of forum? I’m afraid I don’t see it yet.

  22. eric says

    Abby @21 – fair enough, my sentence was too general. The ability of administrations under this law to arbitrarily select one person (from a subset) makes it not really a public forum, and brings in the issue of endorsement. The clearer and more neutral the selection criteria (in both theory and fact), the less likely it will be seen as endorsement.

  23. abb3w says

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    Though this pretends to be “neutral criteria,” in practice it will ensure that the students picked to speak are part of the dominant Christian majority and thus that only Christianity will be advocated during these newly designated “introductions.”

    With one little asterisk.

    Student council and class officers are elected, which looks likely to run into the problem of “Santa Fe v Doe” where the “majoritarian process implemented by the District guarantees, by definition, that minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced“. (Any minority student who ever gets preachy has nil chance for re-election.) And I’ve little reason to think atheism is particularly widespread among football players; my impression is they’re more likely to be more conventionally religious than the norm for their generational cohort. I admit, that’s much based from some stereotype traits, and there’s always the chance for a multi-sigma outlier from the mean.

    The little asterisk is at “other students holding positions of honor as the school district may designate”. That would appear to include Valedictorian and Salutatorian, and their addresses to the graduating class. Those are chosen by academic merit, as the top two students by GPA in the class. And while Mississippi is hardly a hotbed of atheism, the higher tendency to irreligion among the smart and studious suggests that atheists seem disproportionately likely to end up in those slots.

    That’s still unlikely to be many. Nationally, roughly one-in-three millenials are unaffiliated, and perhaps one-in-eight of those self-identify as atheist. Since we’re talking smart kids, that might be half again as likely for the V&S; contrariwise, levels of irreligion in the Derp South (census region 6, including we’ll-not-Miss) is only about 2/5 the national, and not all high school atheists will be willing to burn their bridges behind them — guessing really wildly, call it maybe one in three. That gives about 1 in 120 -torian New Atheists ready to call for revolution. With circa 200 high schools in the state, it can be expected to have circa three such riot-provoking addresses by either valedictorian or saludictorian each year. (Only about one chance in 70 of a school with both.)

    The legislature will then face the challenge of trying to close this loophole enough to let Christian “praise God!” graduation messages continue while blocking atheist “your religion sucks, and you all suck for pushing it in schools” addresses. Meanwhile, secularist groups likely will challenge the law, because graduation looks to be the only such assembly where there’s even chances this slim for contra-majority viewpoint expression.

  24. Abby Normal says

    Eric @27, sorry if I was being pedantic. You bring up an important point when you say “in both theory and fact.” A law like this could be discriminatory as written, that is to say on its face. Or it could be discriminatory as applied to individuals, meaning that it effectively discriminates even if the criteria are theoretically neutral. Both are unconstitutional. But obviously the latter is much more difficult to demonstrate before a judge. It’s also more difficult to establish standing and less likely to result in the law being struck down, even if you win.

    This law seems to be written in such a way as to give it the best possible chance of withstanding a facial challenge. If so, and if schools apply this law way we fear they will, it would still be illegal. But it will be a real uphill battle getting it struck down.

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