Last week, Sen. Mark Jansen (R-28), along with seven other Republicans and one Democrat, introduced SB-716 , a bill that would super-constitutionally sanction religious free speech. Several months ago House Republicans proposed a similar piece of legislation.
In light of this, it’s reasonable to ask — Why now? Has there been a sudden rash of First Amendment violations in our nation’s schools?
(Actually, there has been, but not over religious expression. Read on.)
The likely impetus behind this unnecessary lawmaking is a desire to foist Christian beliefs on students. Judaism isn’t known for any old, or new, need to proselytize, and Muslims face their own unique concerns over public religious expression.
So what’s up?
In a 2012 Gallup poll, The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, the number of Americans identifying themselves as atheists was on the rise, from 1 percent in 2005 to 5 percent last year, yet they remain an especially reviled sub-group to many among the Christian faith. It is safe to say, this law is certainly not designed to encourage a flowering of secular humanism either. Religiosity as a whole, is in a rapid decline in the United States — only 60 percent presently claim a faith, down from 73 percent in 2005.
Both of these proposed Michigan laws go into excruciating detail as to how school policy should be shaped to provide very specific opportunities for students to express their religious views in school forums and settings. However, it is very doubtful that Michigan lawmakers intend to protect the First Amendment right of little Jimmy to make a symbolic poultry sacrifice to Vigoth the Worm God during recess. Keep it clean, keep it Christian.
In fact, public displays of Christianity are more likely to cross the Constitutional line.
Last week in Osceola County, the Pine River Area School Board voted to allow the words “In God We Trust” on a school sign they commissioned. They claimed it was not a religious statement, but simply the way the artist who created the sign designated his work — it was an ‘artistic’ signature. School Superintendent Jim Ganger explained it thus to UpNorthLive:
“He didn’t do it to promote or inhibit religion in any way. It’s just part of his work. It was totally innocent.”
Although the school district attorney advised them against keeping the phrase, the school board acted under pressure from religious community members, and the words remain on the sign.
Does the Worm God then deserve similar recognition at Pine River Schools?
In 2009, Oklahoma Republican lawmakers voted to allow a privately-funded display of the Ten Commandments at their state Capitol building. More recently, a group from the Satanic Temple requested the right to place a privately sponsored Satanic display adjacent to the Christian one — an action that both the ACLU and a constitutional law professor from the University of Oklahoma said must be allowed. It’s all or nothing under the First Amendment. Professor Joseph Thai said this of the conundrum:
“The state can disown the Ten Commandments monument erected at the Capitol with private funds as private speech, but then it cannot reject other privately donated religious monuments — even a satanic one — on the basis of viewpoint.”
And now, The Universal Society for Hinduism has requested to be allowed to fund their own display on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. It appears that Oklahoma lawmakers, pardon the pun, opened a can of worms.
So, back to those poor students in Michigan, and elsewhere, being deprived of their First Amendment rights — who are they, and what kind of expression really is being illegally curtailed?
As it turns out, it’s student journalists who are being muzzled by school administrators. School papers and other forms of written expression are frequently the subject of First Amendment violations. The Student Press Law Center enumerates multiple infringements in their news feed , with typically a dozen stories each month.
Unlike expressions of faith, student journalism does not enjoy special legislative protection in most states, including Michigan. The SPLC found only eight states protecting budding journalists in public schools.
In states without laws, school districts that are twitchy about student paper content, turn to implementing restrictive policies which are a clear violation of First Amendment rights. They accomplish this by limiting distribution of school-based publications to on-campus only, and claiming absolute editorial control through “prior review/prior restraint” rules designed to side-step constitutional protections affirmed by the Supreme Court in the landmark decision Tinker v. Des Moines.
Higher education is not exempt from First Amendment attacks either. College campuses have improved little since the dark days of Kent State. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) works tirelessly defending free speech on campuses across the nation. Focused solely on higher education, FIRE provides legal support and advocacy for students, including protections for religious expression, along with a searchable database for college-bound students concerned about free speech. Universities and colleges are assigned a color-coded score — green, yellow or red, based on their First Amendment protections.
In Michigan, major universities are flunking the constitutional test:
It seems higher education in Michigan has a thing or two to learn about our nation’s constitution.
Let us pray for their enlightenment.
Amy Kerr Hardin
Credits to author Christopher Moore for the Vigoth the Worm God reference from his hilarious book The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove.