House Bill 303, filed Thursday (1/19) by Rep. Kimberly Daniels, has the potential for serious trouble. The “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Actâ€ has two troublesome sections that could impact science education.
The bill is broad, with the purpose of protecting/allowing students and others in the school system free religious expression without fear of discrimination. On the surface, thatâ€™s a noble desire. But there are booby traps littering the five-page bill that could blow up in many places, including the science classroom.
The first cause for alarm comes early in the bill:
A school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression.
That single sentence can kick open the door for creationists and even climate change deniers in instructional positions to freely express their anti-science views in the classroom. And that sentence actually is alone. The bulk of the bill addresses studentsâ€™ religious expression while just this one sentence mentions rights forÂ school personnel. There are no further details or explanation to go with that single statement, leaving it wide open to interpretation and abuse.
The other cause for alarm can be found here:
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.
On the one hand, anti-science views expressed by students can be tempered with the â€œexpected academic standardsâ€ requirement. And keeping assignments fact based can eliminate anti-science â€œstudentâ€™s viewpointâ€ issues. On the other hand, there is too much wiggle room in there that could allow students or their parents to make trouble for teachers teaching reality-based science. Even though teachers can use academic standards to defend themselves, this paragraph in the bill can still have a chilling effect on teachers who want to avoid conflicts.
This bill is not strictly an anti-science or creationist one, but it certainly can be used for those purposes if signed into law as is. There is also the very real and dangerous possibility of the bill being amended and otherwise modified during the legislative session to include creationist and deceptively called â€œacademic freedomâ€ language. We need to keep an eye on it for the next few months.
Itâ€™s also worth noting that the bill sponsor 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.