When Religious Liberty Laws Go Wrong

I’m a religious liberty absolutist. I think that you have to be such to live in a pluralistic society, where free a exchange of ideas is not only possible but necessary.

Being an American, I believe that the founders got it right when they enshrined the free exercise of religion as the first and foremost right that should not be infringed by any law. That prohibition meant that the coercive power of the state could not be used to force anyone to adhere to a sectarian doctrine. This means that every American has the right of free association, that they can choose to align themselves with any religious group that they desired without fear of state reprisal.

Along those lines, I am willing to recognize that certain religious groups have prohibitions that prevent them from certain nationalistic or patriotic acts, such as the saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I also recognize that certain religious groups believe that it is unnecessary for a person’s education to extend beyond a certain point. These are reasonable exceptions that nest neatly into a pluralist society.

I also believe that conscience exceptions should be instilled in law, such as bakers who don’t want to provide services to a “gay wedding”, or a nurse who doesn’t want to participate in a sex-change operation. These are acceptable exceptions that should be preserved. However, I find myself in an unusual position: agreeing with a secular/atheist position that I see as a bridge too far.

Michael Stone, writing at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog, writes a post titled “Ohio Law Would Allow Students To Give Wrong Answers Because Of Religious Belief”. At first I thought this was a clever bit of click-baiting, until I looked up the story that prompted it.

The legislation, operating under the title of “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” has a few good things in it like:

  • A requirement for public schools to give students the same access to facilities if they want to meet for religious expression as they’d give secular groups.
  • Allowing students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent as a student in secular activities or expression.

I mean, these fit under the rubric of “equal access” and “equal protection”, however there’s also some more…well…potentially troubling things such as,

  • A prohibition on schools from restricting a student from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork and other assignments.

Now, I believe that a student should not be penalized for expressing their beliefs in an assignment where they are free to write about an opinion or express their artistry unless it directly flies against the purpose of the assignment. Such as, if a student had to write an assignment on historical events and say, a Muslim student wrote about the prophet Mohammed’s war exploits, or a Christian student wrote about the historical facts surrounding the crucifixion, which are matters of history. There’s a lot of gray area, however—and this is the weird part—I find myself in agreement with students inserting religious beliefs in exchange for what is accepted scientific consensus.

The greatest example from the news piece is that, “…if a student turned in homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old – a belief held by some creationists — they couldn’t get docked in their grade.

Now, while I am of the opinion that much of the argumentation used in the age of the earth debate is circular on both sides, I’m just not going to debate an issue where there is no clear justification, especially when it doesn’t effect a doctrine. Im just not interested in expending the energy. I don’t have to agree with something to understand it and regurgitate it on a test, after all I’ve had to do that with a lot of other subjects I disagree with.

I think that the Ohio bill is simply bad policy that needs to go back to the drawing board because it will create more problems than its worth.