Let’s just get this out of the way: Tennessee’s Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act is a largely superfluous bill which, nevertheless, manages to be a borderline violation of the Establishment Clause. Before I elucidate on that point, here is some context for you—in case you haven’t already read up on the bill:
On March 24, Tennessee lawmakers, with a 32-0 vote, approved a bill aptly titled “The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” (or SB 1793/HB 1547) which maximizes protection for a student’s “voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint.” It seems innocuous. It seems redundant.
The controversy is that the bill specifically applies to religious expression in public schools, mandating that students be able to express their religious beliefs in written and oral classwork and homework, without repercussion. Religious events or activities and proselytization would also be permitted on school grounds.
What this means: Teachers and other school officials will be legally prohibited from penalizing (or rewarding) a student for including religious content in their work. The bill itself, which you can read here, lacks specificity on this matter. But some critics, including the ACLU, have already been giving some of their own guesses about the ramifications of the bill. Namely, that a student could not be penalized or reported for writing “God” as an answer to “Where does water come from?” on a science test.
It does not sound like the state will be in the business of sanctioning any set of religious beliefs. But it sure does sound like state-licensed affirmation of religious doctrines, by, for example, regarding them as equivalent to scientific accounts. If anything, this is a borderline violation of the Establishment Clause.
David Badash, at The New Civil Rights Movement, worries that the bill would foster a hostile environment for LGBT students. Mary Noble of Politix, echoing some of Badash’s worries, opines that students “would now also be protected from criticism if they spend their science classes making statements of their religious beliefs.” And ACLU deems it a “systematic imposition” of personal, religious beliefs.
Now my turn: the bill is largely superfluous. I do not have a problem with a student professing Jesus, Moses, or Buddha as their spiritual guides in a personal essay (or graduation speech, for that matter…but that’s just me). I do not have a problem with works conveying a religious message in an art class. And a teacher who punishes a student for merely professing belief—in writing or in speech—is overstepping their bounds. Students have a legal and moral right to that expression, as the Supreme Court has made clear many times.
But the teacher should not have to fear for their job or a lawsuit if they do not treat theological doctrine as equivalent to scientific answers on a biology exam. I dread that this may be one, possible ramification. Those of you lauding the bill, hear me out:
If your child scribbles creationist doctrine on a biology exam, they deserve an “F.” Protest as much as you like, creationism is not accepted scientific doctrine by most of the academic community—and they are the ones who set the standards. The librarian does not have to pull copies of Heather Has Two Mommies off the bookshelves because it offends your moral sensibilities.
If you just can’t handle secular, scientific teaching, homeschooling or private school may better suited to your worldview. I will ardently defend your right to live, pray, profess, and learn in accordance with your beliefs—without having to fear the jackboot of the state. I have proclaimed my support for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. I am no stranger to siding with the faithful. But the bill steps over the line of religious freedom into keeping children ignorant, and that is not the function of public schools.
Advance religious liberty by pushing back the state, instead of entreating it.