Monday, March 20, 2023

KY: Putting Religion In The Classroom

It's touted as a bill to protect the religious freedom of public school employees, but that's not exactly what Kentucky's HB 547 does. 

What it does is give teachers the right to proselytize in school, particularly in their classrooms. 

Asked why the state needs any such legislation, sponsor and former pastor Rep. Chris Fugate had an explanation:

Fugate said HB 547 is needed due to out-of-state groups protesting prayer before football games.

“I hope that this bill shows that the teachers in Kentucky are supported by not only the Kentucky General Assembly but by the Supreme Court of the United States,” Fugate said.

This guy.
In other words, Fugate has read about the Kennedy v. Bremerton case, in which the Supreme Court was so eager to sign off on allowing school prayer that they traveled all the way to an alternate reality to do it. So he'd like to rewrite the laws so that it allows faculty and staff to proselytize in this reality.

The bill is only two pages long; the beef says that while a school district employee is "on duty" they may "at a minimum" talk about religion with other employees, lead student religious groups, wear religious garb, decorate their desk and other personal spaces with religious stuff. Note: that's "at a minimum."

Linda Allewalt, a former teacher calls the bill "a blatant attempt to legalize evangelizing in school," which sounds about right. And she imagines how this would work:

When I read about this legislation and considered the fact that atheism is also protected speech under the First Amendment, I imagined what it would be like if I was once again running a classroom under the provisions of Rep. Fugate’s legislation. I could imagine wearing my Freedom From Religion shirt that says, “Unabashed Atheist: Not Afraid of Burning in Hell.” I could wear my nice Big A atheist necklace. I could put a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” on my desk next to my pencil holder. I could put up a little sign with one of my favorite quotes on it by Chapman Cohen, “ Gods are fragile things. They may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.” I could go on with this idea, but I think you get my drift.

Meanwhile, of course, Kentucky has tried to pass some laws limiting LGTBQ rights, particularly in schools. 

The law has some odd guardrails, like the right to wear religious clothing--as long as it conforms to the school dress code. So publicly displaying your love for Jesus is okay, but not if you insist on doing it with spaghetti straps instead of full sleeves.

And the bill comes with a ready made escape clause for any administrator who foresees endless headaches, like having to set up a school committee to determine what constitutes a "legitimate" religion or not. The law grants all of these freedoms to the extent that they are exercised in no-religious ways. In other words, faculty can discuss religion "at the same time and in the same manner that employees are permitted to engage in nonreligious expression and discussions outside the scope of duties." They can decorate their desk with religious items "to the same extent that other employees are permitted to decorate their desk and other personal spaces with personal items." Teachers can sponsor religious student groups to the same extent that they can sponsor other sorts of clubs. Etc.

So I predict that highly conflict-averse administrators would simply shut down everything. "I don't want to get in flaps over personal religious items on your desk, so as of now, you are not allowed any personal decorations or items in your classroom." The Stanic Temple wants to sponsor an after school group? Fine--the new rule is that there will be zero after school groups.

And as always, I predict that support among christianist conservatives for this sort of measure will suddenly dry up when an Islamic football coach wants to lead a prayer after the game.

Allewalt has an answer to all of this. Referring to her imaginary atheist bedecked classroom:

I wouldn’t do any of this, even if the law said I could. Why? Because it’s wrong, both morally and ethically and violates everything I ever learned about the role of the teacher in a classroom of children. It is also wrong to harangue the people you work with everyday with proselytizing pamphlets and out loud vocal prayers. When a teacher is more invested in pushing their religious rights than they are creating an equal community, void of divisiveness, with the staff in the building and all the children in their classrooms, they don’t belong in the profession. They are taking advantage of the captive audience of children for their own purposes. It’s beyond reprehensible.

You carry the person you are into the classroom with you. I don't think it's necessarily a great idea to try to pretend that you do not believe anything about anything for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's nearly impossible. But I absolutely believe that you have an obligation to run a classroom in which what you believe is not connected to how you treat your students. Students must absolutely believe that they do not have to pretend to agree with you in order to get a good grade and respectful treatment--that goes for beliefs about the value of algebra, the interpretations of Hamlet, and proper way to honor the Lord of All Creation. 

In this day and age, it's not a bad thing to model for students how to be a grown human who believes things, but does not allow their personal beliefs to affect their professional behavior. I'm pretty sure the country would be a better place right now if everyone mastered How To Believe Things Without Being A Jerk About It. But teachers need to do better than that; every classroom should be safe for all students. 

This is a bad idea for a law; not only does religion not belong in the classroom, but supporters will live to rue the day they passed such a thing (hello, school district religion approval committee). If Kentucky is fortunate and wise, this bill will die a well-deserved death. 

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