Religious proselytizing in the state’s public schools will be virtually sanctioned under bills introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature for this upcoming session, a clear violation of basic church and state separation.
The bills would also appear to directly violate Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which states: “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”
But even that constitutional language has come under fire in this year’s rightwing religious assault. One introduced legislative resolution would create a ballot measure that, if approved by voters, would simply remove it from the constitution.
What’s going on here is that Republicans are trying to use their new power — they control the legislative and the executive branches of government — to force schools to teach religious ideas about creation and to allow evangelicalism on campus. The impact could dumbdown our students, burdening them with pseudo-scientific ideas and methodology.
State Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, has introduced Senate Bill 554, which finds “biological evolution” controversial and would ensure students would “not be penalized in any way for subscribing to a particular position of a scientific debate.”
The problem here is biological evolution is decisively not controversial among the vast majority of scientists in the world. It’s a proven scientific theory that has never encountered any serious refutation. Evolution theory is a bedrock of modern science and the scientific principle. The only controversy is that some Christian fundamentalists think evolution undermines the biblical creation story.
House Bill 1001, the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, could actually turn the state’s public schools into individual religious academies.
Under the bill, religious expression in schools would be treated the same as secular expression on permissible subjects. This might mean students could not be penalized for presenting religious-based answers on tests or in papers, most notably in science and history classes. The bill would also require schools to adopt a “limited public forum policy” that would allow students to present religious views on school property. One of the requirements of the bill is these limited forums could not discriminate against religious viewpoints.
Another religion-related bill defines a “person.” Under the bill a person “means a human being at all stages of human development of life, including the state of fertilization or conception …” Thus, an embryo would be considered a person and women here could completely lose reproductive rights.
Oklahoma already has some of the most draconian abortion laws in the nation, making this bill superfluous. Unless the Roe v. Wade ruling is someday overturned, there’s really nothing left to do here on the legislative level about abortion. This legislation isn’t about morality.
It’s about using a cultural wedge issue to energize the right-wing base, a tactic that has obviously worked well in Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the GOP here will undoubtedly continue its assault on our state schools by pushing for school vouchers here under the false rubric of “school choice,” but nothing will be gained by decimating the state’s already anemic public school funding.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.