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January 27, 2014

Legislation Pending in Virginia Threatens Religious Liberty

It is early in the 2014 session of the Virginia Legislature, but its Senate has already passed a backdoor school prayer bill – Senate Bill 236 – and a House committee has passed a similar measure – House Bill 493.  Also introduced this year and in a House subcommittee, is an anti-evolution bill – House Bill 207 – which would open the door to public school science educators teaching creationism, creation science or intelligent design, a repackaged form of creationism.virginia-state-seal

Given the speed at which the school prayer bills are moving and the socially conservative bent of the Virginia legislature,  ADL sent a letter to the new elected Governor urging him to veto any of these bills should they reach his desk.

Characterized as prohibiting discrimination against “a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint,” the school prayer bills would actually allow religious coercion in public schools of children as young as five by authorizing students to give overtly sectarian prayers or proselytizing messages at mandatory and non-mandatory school assemblies or in oral presentations within the classroom.

Virginia is not the only state to consider such legislation.  Texas passed a similar law back in 2007, and 2014 bills have already been filed in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

The anti-evolution bill appears to be a reincarnation of so-called “Academic Freedom Acts.”  Although it never specifically references evolution, creationism, creation science, or intelligent design, the legislation speaks in terms of “scientific controversies in science classes” and it authorizes teachers to help “students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes.”

The scientific controversy phrase is well-known code for evolution.  Of course evolution is a scientific theory and the strengths and weakness language is an established vehicle for introduction of religious explanations for life on earth into the public school science classroom.

Louisiana and Tennessee have passed similar measures over objections from state and national organizations of scientists and of science teachers.  And a call for the repeal of Louisiana’s law has been supported by over seventy Nobel laureates.

Both bills raise serious constitutional issues of religious coercion and endorsement.  If enacted, they will undoubtedly result in costly litigation for the State and school districts.

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