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the fall of separation between “anti-secular” and “anti-science”

Recent behavior by the Giles County School Board and the Roanoke and Franklin County Boards of Supervisors has sparked an ongoing and often heated public dialogue over the morality and Constitutionality of officially sanctioned scripture, prayer, and other religious observance in public institutions. Precedent and regional outcomes, which tend to discourage government endorsement and even indirect favoritism in favor of impartiality and minority protection, appears to have prompted some backlash at the level of the State Senate.

Via the Franklin News-Post (via Scott Mange), State Senator Bill Stanley has proposed an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia clearly intended to rescind the continuing wave of secularism. Mr. Stanley represents the nearby 20th Senatorial district, which he claimed from long-time Democratic Senator Roscoe Reynolds on the heels of the 2010 Republican wave. The amendment would amend Article I, Section 16 (“Free exercise of religion; no establishment of religion.”) to explicitly protect “the right” of “citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the Commonwealth” “to pray on government premises and public property”. It is illustrative to view parts of the amended wording as direct responses to recent events:

  • The assurance “that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies” looks like a direct refutation of the precedent established by Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, which explicitly forbids the sort of ostensibly neutral “open invitation” that invariably leads to domination by the majority religious group.
  • The assurance “that the Commonwealth shall ensure public school students their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive and as long as such prayers or expressions abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances” could refer to the brief episode in Floyd County (in which religious expression was also affirmed by the ACLU) but just as easily (if not as confidently) to the student walk-outs during the Giles County debacle.
  • Even the strangely supplementary assurance, “to emphasize the right to free exercise of religious expression, that all free public schools receiving state appropriations shall display, in a conspicuous and legible manner, the text of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States”, might be better understood in the context of the problems raised by the Ten Commandments display itself, which future Commonwealth’s Attorney Bobby Lilly reimagined (or diluted) into the Historical Documents Display that included, among various other documents, the Bill of Rights.

Ultimately, the perceived threat to Christian freedom in America, even to Christian dominance in the public sphere, is fantastically absurd and, more importantly, adequately addressed all over the damn place. (Chris Rodda is a good place to start.) This particular proposal, Don Byrd, of the Baptist Joint Committee, observes, “will not save government-sponsored, sectarian prayer from failing First Amendment scrutiny, and it fails to provide any other rights to pray not already guaranteed by law.” The motivation behind this proposal is not protection; it is entitlement.

Interestingly, however—and alarmingly—Mr. Stanley’s proposal aspires to far more than curbing or even reversing the current secular trend, something that Byrd, in its criticism, misses (though Hemant Mehta spotlights it). Nestled among the proposed amendment’s entitlements are two which are wholly separate from the issue of observance:

  • The amended section ensures “that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work”. From the vantage point of civil rights advocacy, the departure in language from discrimination based on the student’s beliefs to discrimination based on the content of the student’s work makes little sense. From the vantage point of the ever-evolving Creationist stealth campaign against science education, however, the change makes perfect sense. This assurance is better understood as an exemption from knowledge, responsibility, and cognitive dissonance than as protection from any serious possibility of discrimination. This interpretation becomes obvious in light of the subsequent clause:
  • “[N]o student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his* religious beliefs”. Mehta likens this language to that of a Missouri ballot referendum from August, which affirmed “that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” In the broader national context, it is difficult to ignore the confluence of such carefully-worded proposals with the infamously overt platform of the Texas Republican Party.

At one level, this episode illustrates the influence and audacity of religious extremism within the modern Republican Party. At another, it is an example, and arguably fits a pattern, of conflation of anti-secularism with anti-science policy, or the political fusion of dominionism with Young Earth creationism.

These issues might—should, perhaps—be treated wholly separately: It is one thing to consider whether the nationalization of (Judeo-)Christianity would alleviate our many social ills or, in Mr. Stanley’s words, “the moral decay in this country”—whether such a restructuring of government would be (ruled) Constitutional or not. It is quite another to enshrine into law a litany of flagrant falsehoods deliberately contrived to undermine the science-based education of younger generations—those who will determine the technological fate of this country and, to a large extent, the rest of the world. These are clichéd talking points, but they are well-suited responses to an intellectually vacuous campaign.

Therein lies my concern. It is easy to imagine a sizable demographic of people wise to the problems of sacrificing science (and history) education who might still be on board with a more modest, or at least subtle, proposal to preserve the tradition (unfortunately long-ignored by civil rights groups) of official public prayer. And such clandestinity itself fits a long-running pattern.

Break it.

* The current wording of this section contains five default male pronouns; Stanley’s contains only this one.

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