At the State Capitol: More Religion! As Much as Possible!

churchstatestreetsIn their ongoing quest to ensure that religious expression is never far from center stage in Tennessee’s public schools, our elected guardians of spiritual zeal down at the state capitol (masquerading as the House Education Committee) today take up the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act (HB1547/SB1793). The measure, which could have been titled the “Make Schoolchildren Commingle With As Much Religion As Humanly Possible Act,” would require that local school boards adopt policies letting students express religious beliefs in all kinds of settings: assemblies, athletic events, pep rallies, graduation ceremonies, and even school day opening announcements. (“The Lord, who by the way frowns upon the idea of one world government, wants you to know that the Model U.N. Club will meet after school today in room 301.”)

Viewed as a whole, the bill comes off as a way to compel kids to listen to religious messages (which may well conflict with their own beliefs) in school as often as possible. But the especially pernicious part of HB1547 is its approach to classroom activities — you know, that pesky learnin’ stuff the schools are supposed to be doing between prayer meetings.

The bill incorporates a lengthy “model policy” that local school boards could adopt to come into compliance with its requirements. Here’s the full text of Article IV of that model policy, titled “Religious Expression and Prayer in Class Assignments” (emphasis added):

A student may express the student’s beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the student’s submission. Homework and classroom work shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Students may not be penalized or rewarded on account of religious content. If a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards, including literary quality, and not be penalized or rewarded on account of its religious content.

There is an obvious contradiction built in to those middle two sentences. On one hand, a teacher can judge a student’s work by “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance,” but on the other hand the teacher cannot penalize “on account of religious content.” So the student who incorporates creationist notions into an assignment on paleontology or developmental biology or cosmology is … what? Evaluated in a science class as scientifically incompetent, but then not penalized for it? What does that even mean?

This bill is clearly just the thing we need to beef up Tennessee’s national educational reputation. Hell, even the most notorious conservative interest group in America ranks us in the bottom 10 of states in its Report Card on American Education. And by the way, I can’t be penalized for that last sentence, since it did open with “hell,” which qualifies, of course, as “religious content.”

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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