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A Pointless ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill in PA

A Republican legislator in Pennsylvania is submitting a bill that he calls the Student Religious Liberties Act. The actual language of the bill is not yet available, but he has written a memo to his fellow legislators outlining what he seeks to achieve. It looks mostly meaningless to me.

My legislation creating the Student Religious Liberties Act will provide certain protections to students attending public schools, including traditional school districts, charter and cyber charter schools, area vocational-technical schools and intermediate units.  More specifically, my bill will:

  • Prohibit a public school entity from discriminating against a student who engages in the voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject.
  • Discriminate against a student who expresses religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.
  • Allow a student to pray or engage in religious activity or religious expression before, during and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent as a student may engage in secular activities or expression.
  • Allow a student to organize a religious gathering before, during and after the school day to the same extent as a student may organize a secular gathering.
  • Require a public school entity to provide a religious group the same access to school facilities and property for assembling or advertising events as is provided to secular groups.
  • Allow a student to wear clothing, accessories and jewelry displaying a religious symbol or message in the same manner and to the same extent that a student may wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display a secular message or symbol.
  • Prohibit a public school entity from discriminating against a student speaker based on the student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject.
  • Require the Department of Education to develop a model policy that is consistent with the act, and further require each public school entity to adopt the model policy or to adopt its own policy for the protection of student religious liberties that is consistent with the act.
  • Preserve a public school entity’s authority to maintain order and discipline on its school campus and protect the safety of school students, employees and visitors.

By establishing these basic protections for school students, my bill will help to ensure that students may engage in speech and activities with a religious perspective without fear of discrimination or penalties.

But nearly everything on that list is already the law, either under the Equal Access Act or numerous court precedents. Students can already express their religious beliefs in all those ways and they do so every single day without a problem. The one potentially problematic line is the one that seeks to protect a student who “expresses religious beliefs in homework.” In almost all cases, that’s already protected. But I want to see the final language on this because it could go beyond the protections already in place and give students the right to opt out of assignments or courses that they find contrary to their religious beliefs.

Missouri did that last year when they passed a similar bill, but that included explicit language that said “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” If similar language is in this bill, that’s a big problem. If it remains as it is in this memo, it’s not really that big a deal. Students can already include their religious beliefs in papers or artwork when it is relevant to the subject. For instance, if they have to write a paper on someone they admire, they can write it about Jesus (or Muhammad, or Buddha, etc). If they have to paint a picture for an art class, it can have religious symbolism in it.

Comments

  1. daved says

    I don’t think that second bullet came out quite the way the originator intended.

  2. says

    I think a polite, well-written letter campaign to Rep. Kauffman from area Satanists would be in order, expressing their gratitude for his dedication in helping them bring True Faith to Pennsylvania’s school. Wiccans and also write to express their thanks. And Muslims. And Mormons. And the local Santeria community.

  3. doublereed says

    What would happen if a kid idolizes Muhammad and decided to paint a portrait of him?

  4. busterggi says

    I disagree about that second point of his, what’s to stop a student from answering every question on every test with “god did it” and demanding that be accepted as a correct answer?

  5. Mr Ed says

    My god finds needless acts of physical activity boastful so I’m taking myself out of gym for religious reasons

  6. says

    The provisions in this bill, as described by the legislator, are in some cases already enforced, therefore anodyne, or in others represent dangerous interference in the education system, therefore have no business being adopted.

  7. jolly says

    I don’t believe this story. Surely it is just the dictionary definition of ‘pandering’.

  8. says

    It’s fairly common for teachers assigning a paper abotu someone you admire to specifically say you can’t do a religious figure, because they got sick of readind 50 papers with the same rehashed points about Jesus every time. Similarly, when telling students to write a paper about an issue, they frequently will say you can’t do a paper about marijuana legalization. This would seem to ban the farmer.

  9. greg1466 says

    Discriminate against a student who expresses religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.

    I think you are confusing “discrimination” with “accurate grading”. Once again I am ashamed of my home states legislature.

  10. says

    The general thrust of this is pretty clearly to ensure that kids get to do any damn thing they want, with no possibility of punishment, so long as it’s done in the name of Jesus. (And no, this won’t apply to Muslims or any other non-Christian denomination — I’m sure there’s a “Creeping Sharia” law to prevent that. It will, however, protect good Christian kids who freak out and beat up an atheist or Pagan kid.)

  11. jnorris says

    The Student Religious Liberties Act is part of the guy’s re-election campaign.

  12. scienceavenger says

    Replace “religious viewpoint” and “religious belief” with “atheism” and see if the legislator still supports his own bill.

  13. iknklast says

    Actually, that homework bit could be problematic, if they think of it as discrimination when you count a question wrong that is wrong. For instance, my students are free to say the earth is 6,000 years old; they are not entitled to have that answer counted as correct. I suspect that’s what that bullet is about, taking away the ability of teachers to require students to give scientifically sound answers on science tests.

    I also suspect the one about student speakers. It can be very difficult to prove that a coordinated speech proclaiming the beauty and grandeur of the lord Jesus isn’t spontaneous. There have been several cases of students being told they can’t say some of this stuff at graduation. This might be the cause of that. It sounds fair and about protecting rights, but it’s really about making sure the students are able to be used by the adults as missionaries for god, or that the students are allowed to vomit god all over other students who just want to attend their graduation.

  14. whheydt says

    An the “religious jewelry & accessories” bullet point…one wonders if he is familiar with the Sikh kirpan.

  15. marcus says

    How about the First Peoples’ student who was not allowed to wear an eagle feather to his graduation in Northern CA. The Christians fought hard for his right to religious expression. Not!

  16. Ichthyic says

    The Student Religious Liberties Act is part of the guy’s re-election campaign.

    that, in fact, is the truly sad thing about it all.

  17. dan4 says

    @8 “Similarly, when telling students to write a paper about an issue, they will frequently say you can’t do a paper about marijuana legalization. This would seem to ban the farmer.”

    Huh?

  18. timberwoof says

    I think he meant, “This would seem to ban the former,” meaning “50 papers with the same rehashed points about Jesus every time”.

    So. Religious clothing. Would that include a pirate hat and an eye patch?

    This piece of legislation is more like a push poll: it’s putting it into the minds of those oppressed-feeling Christians that it is in fact illegal to do all those things that he want to “legalize” so he can get re-elected again.

  19. eric says

    The penultimate bullet is the one that bothers me. Re-stating existing protections in a pandering manner is de rigeur for many legislators in this day and age, but forcing schools to spend money to develop new policy goes a step further. Not only is it a wasted of resources, but it could easily lead to confusing, conflicting, and unconstitutinal policies being adopted at the local level. All the other points set out this guy’s illegal goals in a pseudo-legal manner – but that second to last bullet is where he lays out a mechanism that will likely lead to the result of schools breaking the law, either intentionally or unintentionally.

  20. eamick says

    I don’t believe this story. Surely it is just the dictionary definition of ‘pandering’.

    Disbelieve all you want; the link in Ed’s post goes to the state House of Representatives website, and this is apparently the memo Kauffman sent to his fellow members about the bill he is planning to introduce.

  21. Skip White says

    I guess this is more important than our crumbling infrastructure here in PA because, well, persecution complex.

  22. yoav says

    Discriminate against a student who expresses religious beliefs in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments.

    Does that mean that math teachers must accept calculations based on π=3 as correct?

    Require a public school entity to provide a religious group the same access to school facilities and property for assembling or advertising events as is provided to secular groups.

    So religious groups would now have to jump through all kind of hoops to get their legal rights as well?

  23. Tony says

    I attended the recent Secular Coalition of America’s summit in DC, which was very well organized and featured two Members of Congress as keynote speakers. During one of the panels on education, an audience member asked if there were such a thing as a “Secular Students’ Bill of Rights” to which the head of the Student Secular Alliance, who was also in the audience, responded, “There will be soon!”

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