The Florida Legislature is back in session, so there’s a whole bunch of fresh hell on its way.
Where to begin?
OK, how about the Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act? It’s something cooked up by Florida’s favorite undertaker/lawmaker Dennis Baxley, who has a long history of thinking that the theory of evolution is overrated.
Back when the Ocala Republican took a break from writing deadly bills like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, he became the executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, where he argued that it was unfair for Florida’s impressionable school children to be force-fed a science curriculum that discouraged them from thinking that the Earth is just 6,000 years old, despite the conclusive scientific evidence to the contrary.
“At one time, the scientific community thought that for good health, you should attach leaches to your body,” Baxley reasoned. “We’re just asking them to leave the door open a little bit.”
When it comes to “alternative facts” Baxley was way ahead of his time.
For the most part, the new bill he’s pushing states protections that already exist: That students or teachers can’t be discriminated against based on their “religious viewpoint or religious expression.” And that they can pray and organize religious activities before, during or after the school day to the same extent that secular activities are permitted.
But it also says that “a student may express his or her religious beliefs in coursework, artwork, and other written and oral assignment free from discrimination.”
This is a red flag for the Florida Citizens for Science, a non-profit education group dedicated to the idea that “the proper focus of science education is the study of the natural world through observation, testing and analysis.”
The group’s communication’s director, Brandon Haught, a high school science teacher in Volusia County, wrote about the effects a bill like this might have if it became law.
“Does this allow students to give unscientific religious views as answers on questions about science topics such as age of the earth and evolution?” Haught wrote. “If a teacher tries to explain to the student how the religious answer is unscientific and incorrect, would the teacher be seen as discriminating against the student?”
The guidance on this is murky. The U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines in 2003 that said students should be allowed to submit prayers and other forms of religious expression to fulfill school assignments.
“Thus, if a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards (such as literary quality) and neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content,” the directive cites as an example.
But in the case of science education, the mystical world of theology sometimes collides with the empirical world of science. It’s not as accommodating as poetry.
And the motives of the legislators involved are clearly more theological than academic.
The House sponsor of Baxley’s bill is newly elected evangelical preacher and self-described “apostle” State Rep. Kim Daniels, a Democrat from Jacksonville. Daniels went on Facebook over the weekend to urge her supporters to join her in a liquids-only fast as a way to prepare for the religious liberties bill.
The new lawmaker got off to a quick start with a 16-minute-long prayer she recorded last month in her car and posted on Facebook. Her rambling steering wheel sermon, among other things, asked that President Donald Trump be protected from “every witch and every warlock” trying to ruin him and the nation.
“America is under siege, God, when it comes to the place where witches are bold enough to come out and declare that they will have authority over who’s the President of the United States,” she said. “I think it’s time for the saints of God to take a radical position, and we send every curse back to the vortexes of Hell where they came from, in the name of Jesus.”
How do you grade that on an exam? No wonder why the science teachers are antsy.
When religious zealots start meddling with science education, it tends to be more about academic disregard than academic freedom.