Critical Thinking

New Mississippi Law Allows for Religious Content in Class Assignments

A new law went into effect on Monday in Mississippi that would allow religion to enter public schools without fear of reprisal. This law is known as the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013,” and it is effective beginning with the 2013-2014 school year. While it backs up a number of laws that are already in place regarding students’ ability to express their religion, it also allows for faith to enter the classroom and student assignments in new ways.

Hemant Mehta  has already written about how the new law would allow those of Christian faith to broadcast their beliefs without repercussions. He has also spoken of the need for non-Christian students to take advantage of the law, in case lawmakers feel that this is a way to legally put Christian prayer into public schools, and so I won’t touch on that here.

But that’s not the only aspect of this new law. There’s also a section in the bill that deals exclusively with religious expression in class assignments, and as a science educator this is the section that I find particularly galling. It states that, among other things, students can express their beliefs in various assignments and be “free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” The sentence right after that then says that assignments need to be “judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance,” and to me those two statements stand in stark contradiction to one another.

It’s one thing for students to express a religious viewpoint in an assignment that specifically asks for a personal opinion. It is another matter entirely for students to put religious content into assignments that don’t call for an opinion, and for that content to then be exempt from penalization.

Student assignments that contain religious content can’t always both be judged using academic standards and not be penalized for said religious content, especially in the area of science. If a student submits an assignment that involves the human family tree and invokes a religious argument against evolution, then the assignment should fail if it is judged by ordinary academic standards. If a student’s assignment in a geology class states that the Earth’s age is on the order of thousands of years rather than billions, then it should not receive a passing grade. And yet the wording of this new law appears to protect such gross scientific errors. It says specifically that, “[s]tudents may not be penalized or rewarded on account of the religious content of their work.”

Yes, this law states outright that students cannot be penalized for including religious content in their schoolwork. I feel that this sets a dangerous and worrisome precedent. It implies that the religious viewpoint is a valid one in all areas of academia, which is simply untrue. Science, for one, is not up for debate. It is tested over and over and revised based on new evidence and results–not through debate, and not by majority rule. It does students a severe disservice to teach them that scientific principles can be a matter of opinion and ignored or argued if they don’t fit with someone’s personal worldview. I also feel it can be argued that, by not penalizing the religious content of an assignment, one is by default rewarding that content, even if they are not actively doing so. If a religious response is given in direct contradiction to the material that was taught, and it is incorrect from a scientific view but not penalized, then I feel that that is a kind of reward in and of itself.

There are issues in science that some religious people would like everyone to believe are controversial, such as evolution, and this law would allow students to perpetuate that claim without repercussions. The fact of the matter is that, within the field of science, there is no controversy in regard to these issues. The scientific community is not divided over the issue of evolution, or over the age of the Earth and universe. This controversy is contrived, and would now be protected in Mississippi by this law.

And I fear that laws like this one might be more common as time goes on. It could be good, as Hemant Mehta said, to have non-Christian students take advantage of the bill and broadcast their faith just as much as Christian students. It would be better, in my view, if students themselves stood up to the section on religious content in their schoolwork. It needs to be understood that religion isn’t a viable alternative to scientific facts. It needs to be known that students themselves are against this section of the bill–not only in Mississippi, but all over the country.

We need challenges to this law, especially from students, so that it doesn’t risk becoming a precedent.

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RC

RC

RC is the assistant director of a learning center in the U.S. that focuses on space, science, and technology. She is a lifelong skeptic and science advocate, and a sci-fi fan who will talk your ear off about Star Trek if given half the chance.

6 Comments

  1. July 3, 2013 at 10:02 am —

    A modest proposal — students challenging the law should do so by OBEYING it. E.g., students could create — and formally join — a religion which denied the existence of any numbers other than the positive integers, and state this belief in mathematics assignments/exams whenever a problem included some other sort of number or required such a number in the answer. Students wishing to use biology class as their venue of challenge could join any of several religions that deny the existence of germs and disease — thereby permitting them to pass many examinations by “answering” question after question with “According to my religion, the topic of this question does not exist.” With proper selection (or creation) of some convenient faith, a student could opt out of EVERY task, right down to gym class (for gym, simply invent a religion that regards exercise as blasphemous and/or ineffective.” Take it farther: there are religions that believe that the Earth is flat and centrally located in the cosmos, and that the other planets are mere points of light just beyond the highest clouds — memorize those assertions, and use them to answer any questions needed to pass a course in astronomy!
    Better yet — there are faiths which believe that the universe _does_not_actually_exist_. Write “Nothing exists, including the topic of your question: such is a sacred and legally unchallengeable tenet of my faith” in response to EVERY question, and you are guaranteed top marks. If enough students do this, often enough, the new law WILL be repealed or changed in ways that make it possible for competent teaching and learning to resume.

    • July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am —

      I think this should definitely get to any local SSA’s.

    • July 9, 2013 at 1:26 am —

      Kategladstone,

      Take the law to its most logical conclusion to show people how absurd it is? I love it. I’d love to say that’s so crazy it just might work, the problem would be getting enough students to do that as part of the protest, and I’m certain these people intend to give Christian fundamentalist students special treatment, so its supporters will do everything they can to make it so people of other faiths, including Christians that simply are not creationists aren’t able to take advantage of the law.

      Our best bet is probably going to be getting some really brave teacher to challenge this in a court of law after a family of creationists tries to force the teacher not to ding their kid for saying “The Earth is Six Thousand Years old” and “God did it” on their science test.

      Truth be told, the religious right is desperate to reverse the trend toward greater acceptance of the fact that evolution is a fact, otherwise they wouldn’t even think about doing this. If genuine science, like the Kent Hovinds and Ken Hams of the world like to tell us, really supported young earth creationism, they’d have no need to do this, and they’d see no need to do it.

  2. July 3, 2013 at 10:05 am —

    Or take it further … Students in a civics class can found a “Church of the School of Doubt,” and declare that — according to their new, and sincerely held, religion — the law exempting any religious statement from being identified as wrong does not exist either.

  3. July 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm —

    I wonder if the following argument might hold up: “I didn’t penalize the student for their religious beliefs. I penalized them for failing to answer the question correctly.”

    • July 9, 2013 at 1:31 am —

      Rebel 16

      I have a feeling that it would hold up, since we can objectively prove beyond a reasonable doubt at this point that evolution is a scientific fact. Giving someone a bad grade for getting the wrong answer on a test is not persecuting someone. This law should be ruled unconstitutional anyway, since it has a religious, purpose, and its designed to protect the beliefs of people who reject evolution, not the rights of the people who reject evolution.

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