State Rep. Mike Reynolds said detractors of the proposed Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act either haven't read the bill, or don't understand it.
The Oklahoma City Republican told UTW that there are "basically two different arguments" against it.
The first, he said, is that it's extraneous and unnecessary because it's already law.
"My response to that is, 'Then what are you concerned about? Why did you even waste your time writing me?'" Reynolds said.
The second argument, he said, is that "this will be an invasion of a bunch of religious nuts on the schools."
"My response to that is, 'Check with the first group that says it's already law,'" he said.
The proposed legislation in question is House Bill 2211, which would direct each school district to "treat the voluntary expression by a student of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats the voluntary expression by a student of a secular viewpoint," and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religious viewpoints.
The bill also provides a "Model Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Policy" for school districts.
Reynolds said he filed the bill after a friend from Houston called and pointed out that Texas had passed the same legislation last year to "protect school districts and eliminate confusion about what rights students have."
In the beginning of session, though, it turned out that Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, had filed identical legislation, so it was agreed that she would take over the bill.
Of course, she's had other demands on her time lately after a certain video was posted on YouTube (see related article in this week's paper for the latest on that situation), so Tulsa's own Rep. Daniel Sullivan, also a Republican, took over sponsorship of the bill.
As the bill has changed hands and made its way through the legislative process, a number of critics have taken notice and spoken out, as Reynolds indicated in his aforementioned comments.
"This bill puts students in the same position as the early pilgrims, Baptists, Quakers, Jews and others," said Dr. Bruce Prescott, executive director of the Norman-based Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, in a written statement last month.
"It makes them a captive audience--forced to listen to the prayers, preaching and devotions of people with whom their own conscience and convictions may forbid them to worship," he continued,
"This nation was founded by people who refused to become a captive audience--forced to listen to prayers and preaching led by the Church of England," Prescott added, calling on Legislature to "correct this injustice" by adding a conscience clause permitting anyone "regardless of their position and status within the school" to leave the room when prayers or other acts of worship are conducted.
Prescott also said the bill should make it a crime to "belittle, berate, bully or penalize any person who exercises his/her own First Amendment right to worship according to the dictates of his/her own conscience by leaving the room when 'religious viewpoints' are being expressed."
However, Sullivan and Reynolds both told UTW that the bill wouldn't allow anything that isn't already allowed under current law, but only codifies in state statutes what's already been established by past U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The reason for the proposed new law, they explained, is to get Oklahoma schools on the same page when it comes to permissible religious expression.
"I think what you'll see across the state is kind of a patchwork of policies on how to deal with these issues," said Sullivan.
He said each school district's legal counsel interprets the First Amendment and the related Supreme Court decisions differently.
"As a lawyer with 20 years experience, I can tell you that if you ask two lawyers to interpret one thing you might get four answers, so there is some inconsistency across the state as to how these types of things are being implemented, and we wanted to have this standardized policy," Sullivan added.
Also, if the law is passed, he said the state Attorney General would defend any school adopting the proposed model policy from lawsuits, since the legal challenge would be against the statute rather than the school.
"But, the school would still have the freedom to ignore this, and they can hire their own lawyers to defend their position," said Reynolds.
Those assurances may or may not assuage critics like Ulrich Melcher, president of the Oklahoma Academy of Science, who issued a written statement last month calling the bill a "major threat to the quality of science education" in the state.
"Enactment of HB 2211 will poison education in science," he warned.
"Teachers will be prohibited from guiding students into understanding how the natural world works. They will not be allowed to guide students into scientific analysis of subject matter," said Melcher.
As an example, he said, "In class discussion of natural variation in populations of individuals and selective forces acting on those populations, a student will be allowed to raise ideas from creationism. These ideas are non-scientific. They cannot be tested and have no place in a science class. Yet, teachers will be prevented from explaining that such ideas have no scientific support. The bill further requires the teacher to give full credit to non-scientific ideas when they are part of a student's homework assignment or part of an examination."
Melcher said the bill's inclusion of religion in all classes "appears to be a means that the drafters of the resolution have used to gain support for the assault on science they are engaged in."
Reynolds said he hadn't read Melcher's criticism, but he didn't take very kindly to it after hearing a few excerpts.
"He's poisoned Oklahoma science with his inept remarks," he rebutted.
"If he's a scientist and he can't read the bill and see that it does not do what he says that it does, then I can't imagine him teaching our schoolchildren any valid science. He either didn't read it, or he certainly didn't understand it. He can take his pick," Reynolds continued.
Sullivan was a bit more circumspect about the criticism.
"Some of the criticisms that I've seen so far are from people who don't completely understand the bill. I'm not trying to be smart about that, but I'm just saying there's been some misinterpretation or misrepresentation of what the bill stands for," he said.
The Tulsa lawmaker explained that, when evolution is taught, a student would be responsible for the information, but that student would also be allowed to address his or her religious viewpoint.
For example, on a test in which the student is required to explain evolution, Sullivan said he can write, "The Theory of Evolution is A, B, D and G, but I disagree with that because my religious beliefs are different than what's in this textbook," and not receive a lesser grade as long as the "A, B, D and G" are correct.
"They still have to respond appropriately to the questions. They can't say, 'I don't believe in evolution so I'm not going to answer,'" he said.
Sullivan was asked, though, what place there is for quoting religious texts in a science class?
"It could be, because they have strongly-held beliefs, that they don't agree with the 'scientific facts' being taught as the facts. But, they still have to learn that subject," he answered.
But, wouldn't it be more appropriate to disagree with it on scientific terms, by pointing to the scientific gaps or flaws in Darwinism, rather than citing the Book of Genesis?
"Sure. That would certainly be another example, and some people may or may not view that as a religious viewpoint. The whole purpose, in my opinion, is that it allows the students to express those viewpoints, respectfully and within the context of what's being discussed in the class, without having a greater or lesser grade for it," Sullivan responded.
He said many consider the Theory of Evolution to be a religious viewpoint in itself, so students should be allowed to express their own religious viewpoints in the context of a discussion about it.
Sullivan and Reynolds also explained that, contrary to some critics' stated fears, it does not give students free rein to disrupt or monopolize class time to express religious viewpoints to captive audiences.
"Teachers have every right to keep order in their classroom, as they would with anyone else espousing any other viewpoints," said Sullivan.
Reynolds said teachers can and should downgrade students if their expression of religious viewpoints isn't germane to the assignment or topic of discussion.
For example, if a teacher asked, "How old do you believe the Grand Canyon is," the student answered that it's only 6,000 years old, the teacher couldn't penalize him, he said.
"But, if the teacher asked, 'Based on the rock layers we've studied in our geology class, tell me how old the Grand Canyon is,' the teacher could absolutely downgrade the student" for answering "6,000 years," Reynolds said.
At the time of this writing, the bill had been assigned to the Senate Rules Committee, which is generally where bills are sent to die.
But, the bill's Senate author, Sen. James Williamson, also a Republican from Tulsa, said, "Nothing really dies until session is over" before telling UTW his intention to attach the language of the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act to another bill as an amendment.
But, Williamson said he intends to remove language related to student speakers at non-graduation events, which has frequently been the target of critics because of the "captive audiences" at such forums.
Williamson also cautioned Oklahomans against "criticizing this or any other bill before you understand it, especially when this is only putting any Supreme Court decisions on this to-date in one place."
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