The Florida legislature presented Governor Rick Scott with the Religious Liberties bill on Monday and on Friday he signed it into law. There are two sections of the bill (link to pdf) that concern us here at Florida Citizens for Science. One of them is:
A school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.
There is no further explanation of that sentence. News stories have pointed out that the law says school personnel can participate in student-led religious activities, which is true. But that provision is in a separate section of the law as written. So, the above statement, taken at face value, says that a teacher who expresses a religious view will not be discriminated against. How far can that be taken? Will a creationist teacher be allowed to counter evolution lessons with creationist statements and then claim it’s permitted under this Florida law if confronted?
It appears that is how others are interpreting the law. The Florida Citizens’ Alliance, which is actively fighting against evolution and climate change in textbooks, has boldly stated their intention to use this law:
The group [Florida Citizens’ Alliance] supported legislation that also passed Friday to protect students and educators who wish to express their religious beliefs in school from discrimination. If signed by the governor, Flaugh said his group will use it in conjunction with the instructional materials bill to contest textbooks that demonstrate “bias toward Islam and seldom mention Christianity,” and promote those that push for a Christian view of the origins of life.
“Darwin’s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,” he said.
The other section of the new law that has us worried is:
A student may express his or her religious beliefs in coursework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination. A student’s homework and classroom assignments shall be evaluated, regardless of their religious content, based on expected academic standards relating to the course curriculum and requirements. A student may not be penalized or rewarded based on the religious content of his or her work if the coursework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments require a student’s viewpoint to be expressed.
Let’s say that a student is given an assignment related to evolution. A student parrots the correct evolution explanation (in compliance with what the law says about evaluating assignments) but then adds creationist views. Can the teacher do anything? Teachers typically get to know their students throughout the year and it may be clear to the teacher that this student doesn’t actually understand evolution. Would it be considered “discrimination” if the teacher wants to do remediation with the student in an effort to help the student learn and understand the science?
The bill is signed into law. What now? If this new law concerns you, then it’s up to you to do something at the local level. Simply liking and sharing on social media doesn’t get the job done. You have to be an active participant in the business of your local school board and local schools. If you don’t stand up for science education where you live, who will?