House version of the Religious Liberties bill now moving

houseWe’ve been tracking the Senate version of the Religious Expression in Public Schools bill, which has successfully navigated one committee hearing and is headed for its next one next week. We are concerned with two troubling parts of the bill that could have negative implications for science education. Please see our previous posts about this in the Religious Liberties Act 2017 blog category. So far, the Senate bill hasn’t been modified in any way.

The House version of the bill had been stagnant for a while but is now moving forward. It is scheduled for its first hearing in the PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee Tuesday, March 14 at 2 p.m. Coincidentally, that’s the exact same date and time as the next Senate committee hearing.

However, it’s interesting to see that the House bill has already been amended. A simpler version of the bill will now be considered. Here’s the original for comparison. Keeping in mind that we’ve had two main concerns about this bill, the possibility of teachers using this “Religious Liberties” bill as permission to teach unscientific religious views in the science classroom and the possibility of students using the bill as permission to use unscientific religious views in their classwork, one of those issues is no longer a problem in the House version. The language about teacher (and other school personnel) religious liberties has been removed.

But that still leaves the student classwork concern on our plate. Even though the bill states students’ work must meet “expected academic standards relating to the course curriculum and requirements,” we’re still worried that this can open the door for unscientific religious views being expressed as a way to challenge the teacher’s authority. We can see an example of this from a Kentucky lawmaker in support of a similar bill there. We certainly don’t mind spirited discussion and respectful debate in the science classroom, but we’re worried that a student (or the student’s parents) could claim that a teacher who tries to further explain the scientific facts in response to the student’s answer is now discriminating against the student.

Many teachers already shortchange evolution instruction due to the “chilling effect” of possible conflict with students and families. This part of the bill could turn the thermostat down a few more degrees.

So far, the Senate bill still has both troubling sections in it. We’ll see if it gets amended to match the House bill before Tuesday’s committee meetings. I will be surprised if it does. The bill’s sponsor, Dennis Baxley, recently wrote a piece for the Ocala Star Banner: Protecting free speech in schools. This line says a lot about his strong views:

Without this free religious expression, we are in fact establishing a state-sponsored religion — secular humanism.

But don’t let up the pressure! Call and email and visit with lawmakers in both chambers. Especially focus your efforts on the members of the House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. And if you are able to make it to either Tuesday meeting, I’d be happy to see you there! Let me know and perhaps we can meet up beforehand.

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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