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January 27, 2014 2

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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