There’s nothing like legislation on the issue of religious tolerance to test the limits of tolerance.
The latest case in point: Oklahoma’s newly enacted Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, a statute supporters say is simply aimed at making sure that educators have clear rules to guide them when students bring up religion in the course of schoolwork or classroom discussions.
“Schools and administrators don’t want to get sued by the [American Civil Liberties Union], so that at times they’re squelching the religious expression of students,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Sally Kern, a Republican.
But opponents find some implications of the legislation—now awaiting the signature of Democratic Gov. Brad Henry—to be intolerable.
“This bill opens up the door for extreme points of view,” said Rep. Ed Cannaday, a Democrat, who said that it has “the potential for harm.”
For example, he said, the bill might protect inflammatory remarks akin to those by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the Chicago minister and former pastor to Sen. Barack Obama, which have caused a furor in the Illinois Democrat’s presidential campaign.
Rep. Kern disagreed, saying that “the main goal [of this bill] is to alleviate confusion about what school administrators and teachers can and cannot do.”
And she said that such conflicts rarely come up anyway in Oklahoma, “because we’re a conservative state.”
The bill’s language is largely taken from a similar religious-antidiscrimination bill that was signed into law in Texas last year. (“Texas ‘Religious Viewpoints’ Law Draws Grumbles,” Oct. 3, 2007.)
It states that students may not be prohibited from expressing “their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments,” so long as the students’ statements pertain to the classroom material.
It also says students are free to organize and assemble in religious activities at their schools, with the equivalent protection under law that is given to any other extracurricular organization.
Gov. Henry has yet to say whether he will sign the measure.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week