Do we really need a religious bill of rights?

Contributed by
Feb 15, 2010
<?xml encoding="utf-8" ?>

In the United States, we need a religious bill of rights about as much as we need a white people's bill of rights, or a men's bill of rights. That is, not at all: when 90+ percent of the country claims to be religious, you pretty much run the joint anyway. Worse, we hardly need something like this for public schools. There already are pretty clear laws about how religion can and cannot be treated in the schools.

Still, that hasn't stopped people in Colorado from proposing just such a bill for public schools in the state legislature, a bill which may be presented to the Judiciary Committee as early as Monday, today. Note that this bill represents an act and not a law. Nothing in it is legally enforceable, as far as I can tell. Good thing, too.

The bill is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but two things stand out: one is that it simply isn't needed -- most of the rights it seems so concerned over are already guaranteed and under no threat at all -- and the other is that it oversteps the bounds maintained by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Below are some choice bits of the bill, with what I think is my more reality-based opinion on them. The bill itself IS IN ALL CAPS, so you can read it as if the person is shouting at you if you'd like. I won't bother debunking the basis claimed for the need for such a bill -- they claim religion is under attack in this country, which is patently ridiculous. Instead, here is an example of a bit that is unneeded:

THE RELIGIOUS BILL OF RIGHTS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS AND THEIR PARENTS OR GUARDIANS SHALL INCLUDE, BUT NEED NOT BE LIMITED TO, A DECLARATION THAT A PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENT HAS AN INALIENABLE RIGHT TO:

(I) EXPRESS HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS ON A PUBLIC SCHOOL CAMPUS OR AT A SCHOOL-SPONSORED EVENT TO THE SAME EXTENT AS HE OR SHE MAY EXPRESS A PERSONAL SECULAR VIEWPOINT;

There are many such statements in the bill, and I'm cool with them, since all of them fall under a student's Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. Stating this is like stating they should be allowed to breathe or have their heart beat. By putting that up front and center, the bill crafters make it seem like this freedom is in jeopardy. It isn't.

However, if a teacher or other school official were to do this, that would be a different matter entirely. As we'll see below.

[Students also have the inalienable right to] WEAR RELIGIOUS GARB ON A PUBLIC SCHOOL CAMPUS, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO CLOTHING WITH A RELIGIOUS MESSAGE;

Now this one's interesting! I wonder how the folks sponsoring this bill would feel if a kid wore a "Satan rules my soul!" shirt to class. Or a turban.

Anyway, here's where it gets sticky:

[A student may] EXPRESS HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OR SELECT RELIGIOUS MATERIALS WHEN RESPONDING TO A SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT IF HIS OR HER RESPONSE REASONABLY MEETS THE EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE OF THE ASSIGNMENT;

Yeah, that word "reasonably" opens a can of worms. What happens when a creationist kid doesn't want to say anything about evolution or the Big Bang? If I were a science teacher and a student said the Universe is 6000 years old, I would mark that answer as wrong (why? Because it is). That will lead to some fun with the parents, no doubt. Now again, the student already has the ability to do this. But this somewhat amplifies the situation, and will lead to students thinking they have a right to not be marked down for wrong answers if they are religiously-based. Think I'm overly extrapolating this? Think again.

But the biggest grievance I have with this ridiculous declaration is this one:

[A teacher shall] NOT BE REQUIRED TO TEACH A TOPIC THAT VIOLATES HIS OR HER RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND NOT BE DISCIPLINED FOR REFUSING TO TEACH THE TOPIC;

To be blunt, this is unacceptable. If you are a biology teacher and refuse to teach evolution, then you should be disciplined at the very least. If you still refuse to teach it, then you can either be given a different class to teach, or face termination. Teachers are obligated by their job duties to teach standards-based curricula, and if they refuse, they are in dereliction of their duty as teachers.

Teachers have certain religious rights, of course, but don't have the right to not teach a kid something that is true because of their own religion. There are religions that teach that women are inferior, that blacks are inferior. Will a history teacher refuse to teach about the women's rights movement, or the civil rights movement, because of their own beliefs? Some religions -- I won't name names here -- believe that sexual education is eeevil. If you're a health teacher and refuse to teach about reproductive health, then in my opinion you should face the consequences of your decision.

This is where I think declarations of rights like this are dangerous. It's a slippery slope, and a steep one. And the most pernicious part of all this is it's clear that the motivation behind this bill is not in the name of religious freedom and tolerance, it's in the name of freedom and tolerance for one specific religion. As I point out above, I don't think a radical Muslim would be treated the same way under this declaration as a Christian would. While that may be outside the scope of the bill, it's important to keep in mind.

In the end, this bill doesn't have the weight of law, but by simply proposing it -- and enacting it, which will take time and materials -- it's a waste of taxpayer money, especially when the vast majority of what it's stating is already within the existing legislation. If the religious groups are so worried about this sort of thing, then they should pay for this effort on their own time, and give out flyers in church. Doing this through the legislative branch -- and, in fact, the whole bill itself -- is a bad idea.

If this bill gets out of the Judiciary Committee it will be presented to the Senate for debate and eventually a vote. I've already contacted my local Senator about this. If you live in Colorado, I urge you to do likewise.

Remember:


Tip o' the wall o' separation to the Boulder Atheists