Bill stirs debate on religion, school

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / November 8, 2009

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A proposal before Massachusetts lawmakers aimed at protecting students who voice religious views at public schools is being assailed by advocates of separation of church and state, who say it forces religion on people.

Critics also argue it would open a backdoor for teaching creationism.

But the bill’s sponsors say opponents are misreading the measure. They say it would simply ensure the existing free speech rights of religious students that are sometimes neglected at schools around the country. “What we’re trying to do with this bill is create an even playing field,’’ said Evelyn Reilly of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which wrote the bill.

The bill has bipartisan backing and is pending before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

The proposal requires school districts to create policies to allow “a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious views at school events, graduation ceremonies, and in class assignments, and non-curricular school groups and activities.’’ It also requires districts to provide a disclaimer that they don’t endorse the students’ views.

Ronal Madnick, president of the Massachusetts chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the bill amounts to a mandate for schools to make time at various events for students to share their religion or proselytize. Students already have numerous opportunities to talk about their religion at school, such as during after-school prayer groups, he said. But it’s wrong when they are addressing a “captive audience,’’ such as at a graduation, he said.

“You can’t do it where people have to be in attendance,’’ Madnick added.

Tufts University chemistry professor Samuel Kounaves, vice president of Madnick’s group, said creationism could find its way into science classes because the bill will create uncertainty with teachers about how much to permit students to talk about creationism or hand out creationist materials during class.

“Things are confused right now as it is because a lot of teachers don’t know how to handle the situation,’’ he said. “My concern as a scientist is that science be taught in a science classroom. And I don’t think introducing religious matter in a science classroom is appropriate.’’