Saturday, March 24, 2012
Jerry Coyne is not a lawyer, so I will give him a pass on this one. His instinct is correct, though he can't link it correctly to our Constitution.
Here's the problem: the legislators of Tennessee want to make public, tax-supported, education "religion-friendly". Specifically, they want to pass this:
HB 3616 - SB 3632
February 29, 2012
SUMMARY OF BILL: Requires local education agencies (LEAs) to treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint in the same manner that the LEA treats a student's voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject. Prohibits LEAs from discriminating against a student on the basis of the expression of a religious viewpoint.As always, the proponents of such legislation are their own worst enemies:
Requires LEAs to adopt a policy that includes the establishment of a limited public forum for student speakers at all school events where a student will speak publicly. This disclaimer shall be provided at all events where the LEA feels there is a need to dispel confusion over the LEA's sponsorship of a student's speech. Prohibits student expression on an otherwise permissible subject from being excluded from the limited public forum because the expression is based on a religious viewpoint.
Authorizes students to express their beliefs about religion in assignments and requires such expression to be free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submission. Requires homework and classroom assignments to be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the LEA. Prohibits students from being rewarded or penalized on the basis of the religious content of their work.
Authorizes students to organize prayer groups, religious clubs, or other such gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities and groups. Requires religious student groups to be given equal access to the school facilities for assembling as those given to other non-curricular groups. Requires religious student groups that meet for prayer or other religious speech to be allowed to advertise or announce their meetings in the same manner that the LEA authorizes other nonreligious student groups. Authorizes LEAs to disclaim school sponsorship of non-curricular groups and events in a manner that does not favor or disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or other religious speech.
Model Policy Articles I and II: Sets forth a model policy that LEAs may use and adopt in order to implement a policy establishing a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints. Requires any LEA that voluntarily adopts the model policy to be in compliance with it. The model policy establishes the limited public forum for the voluntary student expression of religious viewpoints applicable to certain students.
The model policy also requires the LEA to create a limited public forum for certain other speakers and to treat a student's voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner that it treats a student's voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint.
Model Policy Article III: The model policy sets forth requirements for student speakers at graduation events.
Model Policy Article IV: The model policy that is adopted by the LEA shall authorize a student to express their belief in homework, artwork, and other assignments and requires such expression to be free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submission.
Model Policy V: The model policy that is adopted by the LEA shall authorize students to organize prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings before, during, or after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities and groups.
The model policy authorizes school authorities to disclaim sponsorship of non-curricular groups and events; as long as they administer the disclaimer in a manner that does not favor or disfavor groups that meet to engage in prayer or other religious activity.
"I think the free expression of religion extends to those who may be in the public institution of education," Holt said. "I do believe in the freedom of religion, but I do not believe in the freedom from religion."However, Coyne states that the "public expression [of religion] is illegal" in public schools. That is flat-out wrong. Students have the absolute right to express their religious beliefs anywhere and anytime it is appropriate. And the proposed law does not (obviously) change that. They can "express their beliefs about religion in assignments" as long as they are "judged by ordinary academic standards." I wonder if Jerry would actually dock a student of his, who did well on one of his exams, if s/he started out by saying "I understand, but disagree with all this, because of my religious beliefs."
The devil is, as always, in the details. Jerry's objection is not why this law is unconstitutional. Where it crashes and burns is here, in the "Model Policy":
Under the model policy, the LEA would set a maximum time limit reasonable and appropriate to the occasion for each speaker to speak at a limited public forum. Only students in the highest two grade levels of the school and who hold one of the following positions of honor based on neutral criteria would be eligible to use the limited public forum:Hello! You can't form an "elite" or favored class of students and give them a forum, that no one else has access to, in order to proselytize. If you are creating a public forum, it has to be open to everyone!(1) Student council officers;
(2) Class officers of the highest grade level in the school;
(3) Captains of the football team; and
(4) Other students holding positions of honor as the LEA may designate.