I have a neighbor who is quite conservative in her ways, advertising her discontent with the current administration with a slew of bumper stickers on the back of her oversized pickup truck.
One of those stickers reads, “The Constitution is Not a List of Suggestions,” which is as true for the minority as it is for the majority.
On May 30, the state House of Representatives forwarded HB 1303, the Missouri Student Religious Liberties Act, to Gov. Jay Nixon for his signature.
On the surface this bill seems to support the First Amendment, which permits the free expression of one’s personal religious preferences, including the preference not to believe. But the bill stresses the rights of the religious.
The bill’s purpose is to allow students to pray at school, to form student religious organizations as the school would secular organizations and to express their religious viewpoints on clothing, homework, art assignments, extracurricular activities and other formats.
There are two problems with this bill. First, it prohibits oversight by instructors in reviewing or grading the work based on the merit. The perception that Johnny got a better grade than Billy because Johnny stressed his belief in God is real. This would prevent some teachers from forming specific criteria for a topic to be graded.
The Rev. Dr. David Greenhaw, president of the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, sees problems with HB 1303 (Columbia Daily Tribune, June 14, 2014).
He writes, “Public presentations by schoolchildren at school events are not neutral; they do and should have input and oversight from teachers.” He continues that any review by the teacher creates some “influence over the student’s religious beliefs.”
He finishes the paragraph by stating firmly that the family “should not have to risk religious beliefs becoming entangled with children’s public education.”
It is the perception, not the intent.
The second problem is the perception of public prayer sponsored by a school at school-sponsored functions. The intent of the law is to allow such personal expressions of religious beliefs “in a manner that does not discriminate against a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject…”
In addition the speaker is to provide in writing and/or orally that her religious expression “does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district.”
The perception is that, regardless of the disclaimer, there is a perceived, inherent endorsement of the religious content by the school. This would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
We have seen attempts to include religion into secular education over the years, including, but not limited to, HB 1303. Public school, funded with tax dollars, must not even suggest a preference toward a religious preference, even if that scenario is only perceived by the few.
Parents who bring their children up in a religious home and prefer a religious education can send them to an appropriate parochial school.
Although the intent of the law is to protect those who wish to express their personal beliefs publicly, the perception will be the promotion of the majority religion — Christianity — not only within but by our public education system.
Laws are made, in part, to protect the minority from the majority. This is the reason we are seeing the recent surge in rulings against the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.
It would be folly to believe that secular humanism will ever be the majority belief in the United States, though the number of nonbelievers has grown over the decades.
But as long as there are minority beliefs, the majority should not and must not adhere to the guise of “freedom” when they really mean “proselytization.”
HB 1303 is another attempt to force religion into public school systems. I urge Gov. Nixon to veto HB 1303 in order to preserve the “free exercise” clause of the Constitution and to protect minority religions and those of no faith.
David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.