Saturday, September 01, 2007

Don't Fuck With Texas.

It seems Texas does a good enough job of fucking itself up. Texas has just passed a new big of legislation, HB 3678 which explicitly defines the extent to which a student can express themselves religiously.

PZ has a screed up about the bill, but I'm not sure he, or Texas Citizens for Science, read the full version of it as there's slight changes in the statements that are quoted. They quote a rather dangerous sounding passage:
Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Students shall neither be penalized nor rewarded on account of religious content.
In other words, this makes it sound like it's perfectly OK to just answer "Goddidit" to every question you ever face!

But in the final version, nestled right between those two sentences is a qualifying statement:
Homework and classroom assignments must be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school district.
Oops! It looks like "Goddidit" isn't an acceptable answer because it doesn't meet the standards expected of... well, just about any class I could think of. Certainly not science.

Essentially what the bill seems to be saying is that students have the right to turn in their biology homework and as long as it has the correct answers on it, they can fill it with all sorts of rants about how great Jesus is and how the teacher is going to Hell for teaching evolution. The evil atheist teacher can't take off points for the student expressing their religious viewpoint. As if any teacher really does.

Similarly, students are allowed to express their religious views in class, so long as it doesn't create a "legitimate pedagogical concern", such as wasting the classes time.

The bill also makes another stipulation:
Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, "see you at the pole" gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities and groups. Religious groups must be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other noncurricular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the students' expression.
This one seems like a throwaway bit of excess given that the Federal Equal Access Act passed in 1984 says almost the exact same thing.

So overall, I don't see this bill as a big deal. Students have always had the right to express themselves, even if it's religiously. What this bill is doing, is making sure it's clear that students expressing themselves is different than the government funded school expressing and promoting religion.

But although this particular bill is a bit of a waste of paper and legislative time, Texas has been hard at work with other stupid bills as of late. HB 1034, passed in June, adds the phrase "one state under God" to the Texas pledge. I've already written my views on what I think of the "under God" phrase for the national pledge, and the exact same applies here: It's blatantly unconstitutional.

The main reason is that the Endorsement Tests requires that any government act not give the impression to non-adherents that they're outsiders. Even the parents at local schools realize that those that don't choose to say the pledge, or even those words, are considered outsiders. "They would have to say it ... to fit in," one parent said.

But just in case that wasn't enough stupidity, SB 83 (2003) made the pledge mandatory without a signed parental release form. This is in direct opposition to the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette which ruled it was unconstitutional to require students to recite the pledge or salute the flag.

So while Texas passes one bill that seems to be rather worthless, it seems the Texas legislature needs to review a few basic supreme court cases.


mollishka said...

There's a question one of the professors here asks on one of the intro astronomy homeworks about proto-bacteria on Mars. I don't remember exactly, but the question is something like, "how do you think it got there?" (i.e., did life travel from Mars to Earth or Earth to Mars or arise independently on both, and iirc the question is phrased about that specifically). Every year at least one student answers, "God did it," which in turn gives the TA a mild ulcer, but because it is an opinion question ("do you think") with no provable answer, as long as the student's response is self-consistent, even "magic man done it" has to be graded with full marks.

Anonymous said...

The Supreme Court has never really used the Endorsement Test in questions of sectarian exercises in school, they tend to prefer Justice Anthony Kennedy's "Coercion Test," which has roots in Justice Felix Frankfurter's concurring opinion in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) where Justice Frankfurter observes, quite accurately, "the law of imitation operates, and nonconformity is not an outstanding characteristic of children. The result is an obvious pressure upon children to [participate in sectarian exercises]."333 U.S. at 227 McCollum has since been used in most recent school-prayer decisions including Wallace v. Jaffree 472 U.S. 38 (1984) and, where Kennedy created the Coercion Test, Lee v. Weisman 505 U.S. 577 (1992)

"The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which "establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so... We need not look beyond the circumstances of this case to see the phenomenon at work. The undeniable fact is that the school district's supervision and control of a high school graduation ceremony places public pressure, as well as peer pressure, on attending students to stand as a group or, at least, maintain respectful silence during the invocation and benediction. This pressure, though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion." Id. at 587.

Not to say this changes the verdict, but it's generally the more stylish test for things dealing with school.

DoubleK said...

As a high school student in Texas at the center of curch-state separation issues (my mother recently was elected to the schoolboard and questioned Jesus Christ prayer at school board meetings, consequesntly getting bombarded with emails and persecuted by angry Christians) I was doing some research on the rules regarding the pedge in Texas. This post helped a lot. Honestly, I gotta agree with you. Texas doesn't need messing with. It does plenty of that to itself.