The Danger of ‘Religious Freedom’ Laws

Sarah Posner writes about the number of states currently considering faux “religious freedom” bills that provide new opportunities for students to proselytize one another in situations where they are mostly a captive audience, like football games, assemblies and graduation ceremonies.

Mach said the bills are both “unnecessary and constitutionally problematic.” They are unnecessary, he said, “because the fundamental right of students to voluntarily express their faith is alive and well in the public schools.” These RVAAs, he went on, “go further, pushing schools to create opportunities for religious indoctrination from the school’s official podium.”

Opponents of these laws are raising alarm bells about their possible consequences. After the Tennessee bill passed, Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., expressed concern for the “potential for abuse” of these laws, because “in communities where one religion dominates, school officials may view these laws as a doorway to promote the majority faith — doing through students what the school may not do itself.”

The ACLU of Tennessee had urged Haslam to veto the bill, saying it is “unnecessary and confusing” and “actually invites schools to violate students’ right to be free from coerced participation in religious activity.”

In addition, critics charge that the Tennessee RVAA could be exploited to teach creationism in public schools, and LGBT rights activists in Tennessee contend that the statute could open the door for anti-gay bullying, under the guise of religious freedom.

In response to these criticisms, the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a conservative Christian advocacy group that supported the bill, criticized “advocates for the homosexual agenda,” saying in a statement that “Christians need to understand that their ability to proclaim the truth of Christ is being eroded under the guise of just wanting people to be nice.”

As always, this push for “religious freedom” is really a push for Christian privilege. If a Muslim student were to take advantage of the very same rules to give an Islamic prayer before a football game or a school assembly, they’d be lucky to make it out with their lives, forget their “religious freedom.” You have every right to pray; you do not have a right to force an audience to listen to it.

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  • roggg

    Imagine the horror if the Church of Satan were to use the new rules to preach to their children. I think they would about-face fast enough to get whiplash.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    Even better….

    You may have heard about the campaign in Mississippi, where merchants opposing the law can get stickers for their window which reads, “We don’t discriminate: if you are buying, we are selling.” Well, according to Focus on the Family, this campaign of respectful capitalism is…

    Wait for it….

    Oh, heck, I’m sure you’ve already gotten where this is going. According to FoF, this is actually “a bully campaign … and it’s being carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.” (Apologies for a link to a hardcore Christian “news” outlet, but I figured people would want to get this crap fresh from the sewer.)

    So according to Talibangelicals, the simple act of not being a hate-filled bigot is enough to oppress Christians and persecute the One True Faith. Imagine my surprise.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    Truth Wins Out has a write-up about this, for those who do not want to give the hate-mongers any clicks: American Family Association Being ‘Bullied’ By Companies That Don’t Discriminate Against Gays

  • cry4turtles

    Oh to remember the good old days when a student praying outloud was considered a tad bit weird.

  • John Pieret

    Gregory in Seattle @ 2:

    I love the “poll” they have at that site:

    What’s your main objection to the ‘We don’t discriminate’ sticker campaign?

    It implies that religious freedom = ‘discrimination’

    No, it implies that discrimination is discrimination by businesses engaged in public accommodation even when you give a “religious” reason for doing so.

    It reflects intimidation by pro-homosexual forces

    I’m not sure who is being “intimidated” here, the people putting up the stickers or the ones who won’t. But, boy, Christians are easily intimidated nowadays.

    It incriminates businesses that don’t display the sticker

    Well, yes, it does that if you mean incriminates them as willing to discriminate against people they don’t like.

    And, no, there isn’t answer for ‘I don’t object and will be putting up one myself’.

  • Modusoperandi

    It’s not Religious Freedom if you can’t force yours on others.

  • Alverant

    You’re 100% right with the last paragraph. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. The moment a non-christian tries to use these “religious freedom” laws to their own advantage is the moment support for them vanishes. Do they really expect us to believe they’ll defend a muslim employee at a pharmacy who refuses to sell shaving products on religious grounds with the same fervor they do for christian employees who refuse to sell birth control pills for the same reason? How about a hindu check out clerk refusing to ring up any customer with beef products? Heck, since many of these laws avoid using the word “religion” and instead use phrases like “strong beliefs” then anything goes and the courts will have to treat them all equally otherwise it would show an unconstitutional preference.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture

    Stop worrying. No one is standing in the way of your selling all you have and giving it to the poor.

  • eric

    @1 and @7: there is very little chance any non-Christian will be able to take advantage of these laws, because they will be set up in schools in which the administration is certain the valedictorian/student president/whatever will be Christian.

    The way I see it, the best strategy here is stopping them before they start. If that doesn’t work and we have to use a “counterexample” strategy, then I think the thing to do is try and find some Christian students who may be sympathetic to first amendment protection of other peoples’ rights, and be willing to give invocations from other faith traditions as a matter of principle.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @Alverant #7 – Indeed. Think of how many religions, denominations and congregations teach that only one skin color is godly while the rest are all evil. Or how many teach that women must not be allowed to mix with their betters. Or how many teach that doing business with people of the wrong faith leads you straight to the unpleasant afterlife. If allowed to stand, these laws could reverse EVERY civil rights law that has been passed since the last 70 years.

    I would like to think that such laws won’t stand: the US Supreme Court has set very clear precedent on such matters. But it may take years before this nonsense gets properly slapped down, and a lot of harm will happen in the mean time.

  • Sastra

    Alverant #7 wrote:

    The moment a non-christian tries to use these “religious freedom” laws to their own advantage is the moment support for them vanishes.

    I hope you’re right. What I secretly fear from these laws is a benign evolution towards ecumenicism, where the loud and proud message eventually becomes “However you believe in God is okay — as long as you do.” Then many, if not most, of our ‘allies’ drop out and the law becomes entrenched as “secular.”

  • iknklast

    One of the things that worries me is that these bills appear to say that a student can’t be counted wrong for giving a religious answer on a test, so if they say the world is 6000 years old on their Geology test, the teacher has to accept it. As a science teacher, I tell my students (college level) that they are free to answer the questions whatever way their conscience dictates, but they have to understand that only the scientific answer will be counted right. My students always have the right to put their religious views in my assignments; they just don’t have the right to get points for them.

  • eric

    @12 – the article says “The law requires school districts to treat student religious expression equally with nonreligious expression in classroom assignments and in the organization of school clubs.”

    That seems pretty easy. if you put down a nonreligious wrong answer, it gets a 0. If you put down a religious wrong answer, it gets an equal 0. The classroom assignment part of it seems to be aimed at allowing kids to choose religious subjects when their teacher gives them “write about what you want” assignements. And the answer to that seems pretty clear to me too – don’t give them freedom of assignment content unless you are prepared to have them exercise it.