The Florida legislature presented Governor Rick Scott with the Religious Expression in Public Schools bill in June 2017 and he quickly signed it into law.Â There are two sections of the billÂ (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 saysÂ 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 Citizensâ€™ 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 â€œbias toward Islam and seldom mention Christianity,â€ and promote those that push for a Christian view of the origins of life.
â€œDarwinâ€™s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,â€ 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 studentâ€™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 studentâ€™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 Orlando Sentinel posted a story online about the bills and mentioned Florida Citizens for Science’s concerns:Â Lawmakers’ push for ‘religious liberties’ in schools sparks debate.
Brandon Haught, a biology teacher in Volusia County and a member of Florida Citizens for Science, told lawmakers the bill would hurt science education.
Some teachers might feel free to discuss evolution from a â€œreligious perspective,â€ and some students might feel they could claim â€œreligious discriminationâ€ if a teacher tried to explain â€œthe science,â€ Haught said.
â€œThis bill would cast a chilling effect on science teachers across the state who would prefer to shortchange evolution instruction rather than deal with potential conflicts with students, parents and then community,â€ he added.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State opposed this bill:Â Fla. Legislators Push To Turn Public Schools Into Mission Fields.
Most troubling, these bills will harm studentsâ€™ religious freedom. Both SB 436 and HB 303 would require teachers to permit religious expression in all school assignments without penalty, opening the door for students who so desire to use class time to proselytize and advance their own religious views on classmates. A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.
The law’s sponsors:
Itâ€™s worth noting that the bill sponsor in the House runs Kimberly Daniels Ministries International and affiliated organizations. A quick Internet search doesnâ€™t turn up any statements about evolution or creationism by Daniels. But she certainly has a colorful history:
Daniels has gained as much attention for her work on the [Jacksonville City] council as her background as an ex-prostitute and a minister who performs exorcisms. Her sermons â€” some have been criticized as offensive against Jews and homosexuals â€” can be heard on local television and seen on the internet. She was also featured on a television show in 2012, where she is shown speaking in â€œtonguesâ€ and wildly performing exorcisms at her Jacksonville church.
Another important point is that the bill sponsor in the Senate wasÂ Dennis Baxley. He was a representative in the state house back in 2005 when he sponsored an infamous bill titled The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights. That bill would have prevented “biased indoctrination” by “the classroom dictator.” In defense of that bill he related an upsetting personal story of a Florida State University professor ranting against creationism in class. You can read more about that bill in chapter 8 of Going Ape: Florida’s Battles over Evolution in the Classroom.
In 2008 we here at Florida Citizens for Science were deeply involved in the brawl over the inclusion of evolution in the new state science standards. Baxley was then executive directorÂ of the Christian Coalition of Florida and he had a firm opinion about the issue:
â€œThere is no justification for singling out evolution for special skepticism or critical analysis,â€ wrote Richard T. Oâ€™Grady, executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in a Feb. 8 letter to the Board of Education. â€œIts strength as a scientific theory matches that of the theory of gravitation, atomic theory and the germ theory.â€
The response from Dennis Baxley, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida: â€œHeâ€™s in error.â€
â€œAt one time, the scientific community thought that for good health, you should attach leaches to your body,â€ said Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala. â€œWeâ€™re just asking them to leave the door open a little bitâ€ for other evidence to be considered.
Baxley wrote a piece for the Ocala Star Banner about his bill:Â 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 â€” secular humanism.
Florida Citizens for Science’s arguments were either not heard by Florida’s lawmakers or they were dismissed as unimportant. But this article at least mentioned our concern and Baxley’s response:Â Senate OKs school religious expression bill.
The bill (SB 436) says school districts may not discriminate against any student, parent or school employee because they shared their religious viewpoint.
But those opposed to the bill say it could open the door from everything from cracking down on science teachers who teach evolution to allowing Christian students to intimidate those of other faiths.
â€œCould it be provoking? Could it be concerning? Yeah, that’s healthy thought. That’s what happens in a free world,â€ said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and sponsor of the bill.
Parallels to Kentucky:
The Kentucky legislature considered Religious Liberties bills that are remarkably similar to ones filed here in Florida. Here’s a link to the Kentucky bill and, for comparison, here is a link to the Florida bill.
Language from the Kentucky bill:
… a student shall be permitted to voluntarily:
Express religious or political viewpoints in classroom, homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination or penalty based on the religious or political content of the submissions
Language from the Florida bill:
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.
Why does this matter? Because in the news articleÂ Ky. Senator: Christians Are Ones ‘Being Persecuted’ In Schools, a bill sponsor had this to say:
Asked if the bill might provide legal grounds for students to challenge answers on tests â€“ for example, a creationist student who disagrees with a science teacher about the age of the earth â€“ Robinson said the student should be free to repeat what was learned in class while appending his or her opinion without fear of reprisal.
“What I would do if I was answering, I’d say, ‘Well, according to my beliefs it’s 6,000 [years old], but according to what you say it’s more,'” the lawmaker told WUKY. “You still answered a question and it would be retaliation if they were to say you’ve got to believe what I believe and you can’t believe what you believe.”
But Robinson adds, “A teacher, if they had respect, they would go ahead and respect and admire a student who thought for themselves.”
Of course, that is a Kentucky lawmaker commenting on a Kentucky bill. But there are undeniable parallels to the Florida bills.
What can you do?
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. Unfortunately, the only way to know if something is wrong in a classroom usually is if a student witnesses it and says something to a sympathetic parent of other adult. Otherwise, anti-science in the classroom could go undetected for years. But being an active watchdog in your school district could give a concerned student, parent or school employee that courage they need to come forward.