Oklahoma: SB 450 Would Force Religion on Students

religious proselytizing - prayer in schools

Legislation flying unchallenged through the Oklahoma legislature would allow unmitigated proselytization in public schools. SB 450 – also known as the ‘Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act’ for Schools – would protect “voluntary religious expression in the classroom.”

While student prayer in public schools is already protected under the First Amendment, SB 450 takes this much, much further to the point of allowing students to literally force their beliefs on a captive audience. One section of the bill states in part:

Religious groups shall be given the same access to school facilities for assembling as is given to other noncurricular groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the students’ or groups’ expression. If student groups that meet for nonreligious activities are permitted to advertise or announce meetings of the groups, the school district shall not discriminate against groups that meet for prayer or other religious speech. School authorities may disclaim sponsorship of noncurricular groups and events, provided they administer such disclaimer in a manner that neither favors nor disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or other religious speech.

[Emphasis Mine]

The legislation would also permit prayer at extracurricular events such as after school sports games. Arguing “there are numerous education benefits that students gain from public speaking,” SB 450 would permit public schools to create a captive audience at public school sponsored events where those with majority-held religious beliefs can proselytize their beliefs to other students. Some of the categories the bill explicitly lays out include:

1. Varsity football games played within the school district as well as those, if any, played at state and regional play-offs;

2. Opening announcements and greetings for the school day; and

3. Any additional school functions as designated by the school district, which may include, without limitation, assemblies, pep rallies, school programs open to the public and other athletic events in addition to football games.

SB 450 attempts to circumvent the constitutional ban on school endorsement of religion by placing students in the position of delivering religious messages. In its writing though, SB 450 gives away this plot as it limits which students may engage in most of these activities so as to limit what religious beliefs can be represented in schools:

Only those students in the highest two grade levels of the school and who hold one of the following positions of honor based on neutral criteria are eligible to use the limited public forum:

1. President of the student council;

2. Class President of the senior class, or if the school does not have a senior class, then the class president of the highest grade level of the school; and

3. The captain or captains of the varsity football team.

Statistically, this would allow mostly one religious viewpoint in schools: Christianity.

Commenting on the legislation, Americans United For Separation of Church and State said:

SB 450 purports to protect students from being discriminated against because of their religious views. But a quick review of its provisions reveal that it is just a ruse to instigate prayer in Oklahoma’s public schools.

The measure would prohibit school districts from restricting what it calls a student’s “voluntary religious expression in the classroom.” Under this bill, students could claim a right to proselytize fellow classmates during class and schools would have to allow students to deliver morning announcements and introduce varsity football games and any other school function “from a religious viewpoint.” No matter how the bill describes school prayer, it’s still school prayer.

Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. Forcing prayer upon public-school students violates this freedom and make students who practice their faith differently from the majority, who adhere to minority faiths or who are non-theists feel like outsiders.

Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education also spoke out against SB 450 recently in a statement arguing:

SB 450 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 21.  SB 450 by Allen, creating the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act. Although the bill does not specifically address science education, it could possibly be used to allow non-scientific answers to science questions  The bill is unnecessary to protect student expression of religious viewpoints, because most of the provisions of the bill already exist in current law. It sets forth rights already guaranteed by the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions and federal and Oklahoma state law,  as well as recommendations made in federal guidelines.  A similar bill passed in Texas several years ago, but has not been acted upon by any Texas school district.  See this analysis of a previously introduced bill for additional talking points.  Please contact your senator and the Senate leadership – Mike Schulz, President Pro Tem, schulz@oksenate.gov, and Greg Treat, Majority Floor Leader, treat@oksenate.gov – with your opposition to bill.

While wide swaths of SB 450 are a regurgitation of existing protections, several chunks of the bill would create law that runs counter to established constitutional law.

Specifically, should SB 450 pass, the law can and will be challenged on how it limits who can publicly express religious viewpoints to captive public school audiences. It will also be challenged on the venues outlined as well as the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down use of public school resources and venues as being channels for religious proselytization (even by students).

Two of the more prevalent federal precedents that apply here include:

  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe: The central concept this ruling offers is that school resources and property may not be used to endorse or assist student prayer.
  • Lee v. Weisman:  This legal precedent ruled that prayers at public school graduations are an impermissible establishment of religion.

Outraged over forced religious proselytizing int he classroom? Contact the Oklahoma Senate and tell them to vote down SB 450.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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