(More) Fighting For (Christian) Religious Expression

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 5, 2008 — 5 Comments

Back in May of 2007 I reported on legislation passed by the Texas House that forced schools to adopt policies to “protect” students who “voluntarily” express their religious views. Despite the fact that the Texas House’s own research organization warned that it will most likely privilege the Christian majority, that didn’t seem to concern Gov. Rick Perry at all.

“Freedom of religion should not be mistaken for freedom from religion and I want to thank the more than 100 members of the Texas House who voted to give religious expression in our schools the same protection as secular expression”

Now nearly identical legislation is being introduced in Oklahoma in order to fight “religious discrimination” (against Christians).

“Reps. Mike Reynolds and Sally Kern, Republicans from Oklahoma City, have introduced nearly identical bills for the upcoming session called the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act. The legislation would require that an expression by a student of a religious viewpoint be treated in the same way as an expression of any secular viewpoint. Both measures would prohibit school districts from discriminating against students based on religious viewpoints and would require every district in the state to adopt a written policy to prohibit such discrimination.”

The problem with legislation of this sort, besides the fact that it is unconstitutional, are the unintended consequences of trying to privilege one single faith group in a pluralistic society.

“Opponents say that the bill further erodes the separation of church and state. They note that as an unintended consequence, school districts could find themselves obligated to give Wiccans or those with anti-Christian views a chance to lead prayers before football games. ‘What are you going to do the first year that a Wiccan calls upon the great mother goddess to watch over the students that day?’ said [Texas] Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. ‘You are not prepared to have schools inclusive enough to meet the law.’”

While Wiccans and other minority faiths taking advantage of the law could be embarrassing for the conservative lawmakers, they know such laws ultimately benefit the majority opinion (and aren’t easily overturned like policies on a local level). Also, the dictate to treat religious speech in the same manner as secular speech in pubic schools is nonsensical (unless you happen to be teaching a course on religion). A religious opinion or belief isn’t categorically the same as a secular statement. There is no workable definition of “treating them the same” in the proposed legislation. If passed into law, all it will do is encourage a hostile environment towards religious minorities, dis-empower teachers from keeping order in their classrooms, and give Christian students a sense of immunity from consequences.

This legislation, like similar legislation being considered in South Carolina, is an attempt by Christian conservatives to muddy the legal waters and create “constitutional confusion” in order to delay and discourage litigation against the laws (once enacted), and ultimately roll back secular advancements. One can only hope that Oklahoma’s lawmakers have a better grasp of the constitution than Texas’s lawmakers. In the meantime, I encourage Pagan groups in in Oklahoma to send a message to their representatives ensuring them that Pagans, Witches, and Heathens oppose this legislation, but will gladly use their new “rights” as often and as loudly as possible if it is enacted.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Ali

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that treating religious statements in “the same way” as secular statements would mean teachers could ask, “And on what do you base that opinion?” and expect a thorough, thoughtful answer based on historical, scientific and/or literary textual examples…Sigh.

  • Bill Baar

    While Wiccans and other minority faiths taking advantage of the law could be embarrassing for the conservative lawmakers…Why? I’m called neo-conservative often by UUs. I’m not embarrassed by another persons expression of faith. If a minister from such a faith gave the standard non-denominational sort of prayer at the start of the foot ball game, I’m certain most would even know what denomination a Wiccan was.If they cast a spell that made the home team win, well, they might find themselves heros.We Americans can be a heathen lot when it comes to sports.

  • Tracie the Red

    I wonder what Bill Barr means by “Heathen.” Probably not what I would mean by that word. And beyond that…let’s not forget there are other issues out there that Americans are facing that need attention. The neocons are masters of creating mountains out of molehills to distract people from their chipping away at the US Constitution.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Why? I’m called neo-conservative often by UUs. I’m not embarrassed by another persons expression of faith.”My experience so far is that “religious freedom” laws and ordinances passed by (predominantly Christian) conservatives are specifically designed to enhance the rights of Christians, and not the rights of religious minorities. When these laws “backfire” and end up empowering religious minorities (specifically Pagans), there is often a great hue and cry, and in some cases the ordinances are removed. Further, this specific legislation is aimed at students, not “ministers”, and the it specifically protects denominational speech, so a hypothetical Wiccan student could invoke Isis or Pan all he or she wanted and (in theory) be protected. But somehow I think we’ll hear “Jesus” an awful lot before we ever get to any other religion-specific deities.

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