Mass., Va., etc. “students’ religious freedom” bills

There’s “An Act Relative to Protecting the Religious Freedom of Students” pending in the Massachusetts legislature which, according to Antoinette Pizzi reporting in the Cape Cod Times, “has bipartisan support and is expected to pass favorably through the Joint Committee on Education.”

Folks at the National Center for Science Education have taken particular notice of this interpretation by a co-sponsor of the bill, as Pizzi reports:

“Students are discouraged from any conversations about religion,” said Poirier, who also is a co-sponsor of the bill. “Perhaps in science class, when evolution is discussed, a student would be able to bring up creationism.”

An April 2008 article by By Jeremy Leaming of Americans United for Separation of Church and State reporting on comparable developments in a number of states, including Oklahoma and Missouri, relates how similar legislation was dealt with in Virginia:

The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill dealing with “students’ voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint.” When the bill, H.B. 1135, was introduced, it contained language as sweeping as Oklahoma’s. After AU and other critics raised concerns in letters to Virginia lawmakers, the bill was amended to strike language that would have forced students to be a captive audience to other students’ religious expression.

Toward the end of February, [AU’s State Legislative Counsel Dena] Sher sent a letter to Sen. Edward Houck, chairman of the Virginia Senate Committee on Education and Health, regarding the bill’s provision on students’ rights to mention their religious beliefs in class work assignments.

Sher wrote that the bill should be further amended to ensure that students’ work was “graded according to academic standards of substance and relevance.”

She observed in her Feb. 27 letter, “Students’ right to express their viewpoints in school work, however, is not a license to engage in unrestricted free speech. It is critical that whatever viewpoint expressed ‘is germane to the assignment’ and that it is ‘judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate’ education concerns.”

Without such assurances, Sher continued, “this statute could be understood to force biology teachers to give equal credit to students who, when asked questions about evolution, answer with religious views about creation. It is not difficult to imagine the many other potential problems Virginia’s teachers could face.”

On February 28, Houck’s committee approved an additional amendment to the bill stating that “classroom work shall be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

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