1/20/11

Student Religious Liberties Act of 2011

We've got a doozy of a bill coming through the Mississippi State Legislature that I feel that all Mississippi atheists should be monitoring. It's called the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2011”. It allows for students to preach to other students at graduation ceremonies and for students to maintain religious objections to material taught in the classroom. Are you a creationists who feels that your faith is being threatened in a biology classroom? The Mississippi State Legislature is on your side.

There’s a bit of history surrounding the language of this bill. At a spring of 2006 high school graduation ceremony in Henderson, Nevada, the valedictorian, Brittany McComb, decided to give an evangelical speech which differed from her pre-approved commencement speech. Midway through her speech, the commencement officials shut off her microphone and abruptly moved on with the program. In the long series of lawsuits that followed, the case to sue the high school was eventually dropped by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 2006 event has since become a case study for religious expression in academic settings. Does a student have the freedom of speech to preach and to convert others in the capacity of a representative of a public state funded school? Was the school denying Ms. McComb her first amendment right to the free exercise of religion by cutting off her microphone? A similar case was ruled upon by the Ninth Circuit in 2003 which said that a proselytizing commencement speech "would have constituted District coercion of attendance and participation in a religious practice" and further ruled that schools have a right to pre-approve commencement speeches.

The bill proposed in the Mississippi State Legislature would require that student speaker to state orally or in writing that the “student's speech does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district.” But if the student is putting this disclaimer at the beginning of their speech, the student body is trapped in religious ceremony at this point. I don’t see how this this bill pass Constitutional muster if it can be easily seen that this is respecting the establishment of religion in an academic environment.

But there’s more to this bill than just school speeches. The text of the bill states that “Students may not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work.” If you are in a biology class and wish to answer your biology homework with your religion’s mythology, how is the teacher suppose to come up with a grade? Again, I don’t see how this bill does anything other than hinder the academic process.

The bill goes on to designate periods of time (opening and closing announcements and athletic events) where students are given an open forum to promote their views. But this doesn’t apply to all students. You have to be part of the “student council officers, class officers of the highest grade level in the school, captains of the football team, and other students holding positions of honor as the school district may designate.” Not a student officer or the captain of your football team? Sorry. Learn to throw a football and maybe your opinion will be valued.

I hope this bill goes nowhere.

Personal note: I’m only posting here about once every six months. I wish I could be posting more. I’ll be attending the SERAM conference in Huntsville on the 28th and 29th, so hopefully this will spur me to do more writing for Mississippi Atheists.

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