Assalaamu alaikum and greetings of peace,
This morning, the Oklahoma State Senate passed Senate Bill 450, the 2017 Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act. While there are a few more steps before this bill becomes law, our departments thought it was important to take a few minutes to talk about this bill.
On the surface, SB 450 looks great, perhaps even desirable, to members of our community. The bill prohibits school districts from discriminating against a student for voluntarily expressing a religious viewpoint and creates a “limited public forum,” a space where all students can speak freely about their religious viewpoints. The bill also prevents students from being punished or discriminated against if they express their religious beliefs in their homework or any other assignment. Under this statute, students can even create prayer groups, religious clubs, and prayer services. Sounds great, right?
Here’s the catch – all of this action is already protected by the First Amendment. Muslim students are already permitted to gather and pray at the prescribed times; they can form religious focused student groups and prayer circles; and they can certainly express their religious viewpoint in classes. This bill, along with many others pressed forward in the name of “religious freedom,” has consequences that are slightly outside of the boundaries of the general assumptions.
What SB 450 actually aims to do is to exempt students from being “discriminated” against in places where religious doctrine and secular and scientific teachings disagree. For example, when asked questions about the Big Bang Theory or evolution, students could not lose points because they believe in Creationism and could offer statements about Creationism as the answers to their questions without penalty.
Although the text of the bill appears facially neutral – that is, it doesn’t appear to target or favor any one religion over another – the intent of the legislators behind this bill is to promote religion in the classroom past its existing Constitutional protections. One of the most important aspects of our First Amendment rights is the right to be free from religion as well as to have freedom of religion, and the first responsibility of a teacher in the classroom is to educate students, not to allow them to proselytize during valuable instruction time.
We encourage you to reach out to your legislator in the State House of Representatives to discuss this issue and encourage them to vote NO on SB 450.
Stay tuned in to CAIR-OK’s Government Affairs Department as we continue the fight through the next steps in the consideration process. We’ll be pushing our legislators to keep their eyes on the prize – a fair and balanced budget – and we know you will be too.
Anna Facci, CAIR-OK Government Affairs Director
Veronica Laizure, CAIR-OK Civil Rights Director