Missouri’s ‘freedom of religion’ fail

Jerry Coyne has the story on his website:

On Tuesday, by a 5-1 margin, voters approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state Constitution that guarantees what the residents already have, but adds a couple of nefarious provisions

The amendment contains these words:

That all men and women have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no human authority can control or interfere with the rights of conscience; that no person shall, on account of his or her religious persuasion or belief, be rendered ineligible to any public office or trust or profit in this state, be disqualified from testifying or serving as a juror, or be molested in his or her person or estate; that to secure a citizen’s right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, nor shall a citizen’s right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs be infringed

So far this all sounds fine. This is classic freedom of religion. Except that the amendment is completely unnecessary as people already have all these rights.

Here’s where is starts getting problematic

that the state shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly; that citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the state of Missouri and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances; that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies;

The above section has the potential to restrict, rather than enhance, freedom of religion as it provides a way for specific religious sects to use government property as a venue for promoting their views.

But here’s the worst part:

that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs

The most obvious interpretation of this is that students can be encouraged by family members or religious groups to opt out of any education in evolution. It could also affect sex education, any classes in which any progressive values are discussed (e.g, gay rights, civil rights, and feminism). In other words, the religious right are using “freedom of religion” as a cover for trying to fiddle with the secular world. It is not making a huge leap to predict years of lawsuits resulting from this amendent.

Also, as Jerry Coyne notes in closing:

If this isn’t challenged in the courts, expect a spate of similar legislation in benighted states, and a new crop of kids who will emerge from school ignorant of their origins and those of every other species. Equating refusal to learn important scientific truths with religious freedom is a devilishly clever strategy, but won’t fly—unless it goes to the hyperconservative U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on issues like this.

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Creationist schools to open in the UK (?)

According to an article in the Guardian, three free schools run by groups endorsing creationism are due to open in the UK in the next year. For those outside the UK, free schools are similar to charter schools:

“Free schools are non-profit making, independent, state-funded schools. There is not a ’one-size-fits-all’ approach. They are not defined by size or location: there is not a single type of Free School or a single reason for setting them up. Free Schools could be primary or secondary schools. They could be located in traditional school buildings or appropriate community spaces such as office buildings or church halls. They could be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, visionary teachers or committed parents – who want to make a difference to the educational landscape. They might be needed because there simply are not enough school places in a local area and children have to travel too far to the nearest school.”

Note that although free schools are funded by the state, they are not required to follow the national curriculum. This has been taken by some religious groups as an opportunity to sneak anti-science views into children’s education. Another issue is that teachers working in free schools do not need to have qualifications in teaching.

Thirty-three of the 102 free schools that will open next year describe themselves as faith-based. The Guardian piece discusses three of these schools:

“Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland, a private school due to reopen in September with state funding, says on its website that it will present creationism as science and affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is “not just a theory but a fact”.”

Teaching creationism in science classes is illegal in the UK, and other free schools have been turned down on these grounds, so how did Grindon Hall get away with it? Later in the article we are told:

Grindon Hall says it teaches evolution as “an established scientific principle, as far as it goes”. However, the school’s policy document adds: “We believe no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, ie why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.”

The school’s principal says this document is obsolete and the school would not teach creationism in science. “…That document is from a time when we were not as clear as we are now about the proper distinction as to what is taught in a science lesson and what might be taught in assembly – two different spheres.

“If children question for themselves their origins, that’s what we want them to do – to ask sensible, responsible questions. Am I here by accident, or – dare I use the word – design?”

So they are not planning to teach “creation science”, but it seems reasonable to assume that children will be taught creationist doctrine elsewhere, and not just in RE classes. The original policy document has been removed from the Grindon Hall website, but has been archived by the British Humanist Association

What about the other two schools?

The Sevenoaks Christian school, due to open next year, says on its website: “The government has said that free schools cannot teach ‘creationism’ or ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this.”

A third free school approved by the government to open next year, the Exemplar-Newark Business academy, is a fresh proposal from a group whose previous application was turned down because of concerns over its teaching of creationism. Backers of the school in Nottinghamshire say creationism will be taught only in religious studies.

So it would appear that the Guardian’s claims are somewhat overblown. None of the schools now claim that they will present creationism as science – they know that they will not be permitted to so so. However, it is fairly clear that, given the choice, they would teach creationism in the science classroom. There is some debate over whether any of these schools really endorse creationism proper, or whether they subscribe to the more general Christian belief that god created the world, but not in the manner described in the Book of Genesis. Regardless, there are many serious problems with faith schools:

Many faith schools are their own admissions authorities, which means they can give preference to children from families which share the religion of the school. Not only does this discriminate against pupils of the ‘wrong’ or no religion and infringe their rights by assuming their beliefs are identical to their parents’, it also leads to segregation along religious and socio-economic lines – faith school populations are often far from representative of their local communities.

Most secondary faith schools are also allowed to discriminate in their recruitment and employment policies. Applicants can be rejected and staff barred from promotion if they are not of the ‘right’ religion, or of no religion. In some schools staff can even be dismissed if their behavior outside school is deemed ‘incompatible’ with the school’s religion.

Most secondary faith schools are permitted to teach their own syllabus of Religious Education (RE), unlike community schools which must follow a locally agreed syllabus. The teaching of RE in these schools is not subject to Ofsted inspection and is often confessional in nature, with the aim of instructing children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion.

RE in such schools rarely covers other religions in any detail and almost certainly will not include non-religious views. Ethical issues such as abortion or assisted dying are often approached from an explicitly religious perspective, with all the potential for misinformation that this entails.

Because personal social health and economic education (PSHE) is not a statutory subject, faith schools are free to teach it from a religious perspective. The BHA is particularly concerned that the sex and relationships components – if they are covered at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory or that otherwise violate principles of human rights.

Hat tip to Ed Stupple for suggesting I write about this story.

No Critical Thinking in Texas

Living in the USA has its advantages and drawbacks. I live in a great little town, know lots of fabulous people, have a great community of scholars (both locally and nationally), and can avail myself of some excellent microbrew beers. However, the conservative/republican/religious axis is an ever-present reminder of the downside.

The 2012 report of the platform committee for the republican party of Texas makes for some chilling reading (pdf here). Some of the highlights include getting rid of affirmative action, abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing employers to discriminate against employees with “sinful and sexually immoral behavior”, opposing homosexuality, repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, opposing any mandatory vaccinations, and opposing sex education in schools. You can read discussions of this report here, here, and here.

Here’s another of the gems included in this document:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Wait… this was a mistake! According to this report, the inclusion of “critical thinking” was an oversight. The republicans are not opposed to critical thinking skills. So why did they include it? It seems that what they are actually opposed to is challenging students’ beliefs and undermining parental authority. Is that clear? Critical thinking is fine, as long as it doesn’t challenge existing beliefs or encourage children to question anything their parents have told them.

I assume that the reasons behind the opposition to challenging beliefs are concerns that children might question their religious upbringing, accept gays, and/or become feminists. However, it is not “just” these kinds of beliefs and values that would be affected by the rejection of critical thinking. A generation that is taught to reject critical thinking would also be handicapped in many other ways, including how to make good financial decisions, and whether to accept medical advice from a magazine, TV show, or a website. Those who are accepted into universities would have a steep learning curve, particularly in science disciplines.

In scientific domains such as medicine, evolutionary biology, and climate science, there is a tension between scientific and pseudoscientific arguments. This tension is illustrated by the acceptance of medical practices that are not based on science and evidence, anti-evolutionary claims, climate change denialism, and the assertion that autism is caused by vaccination. These are all cases of an uncritical stance among the public and media. Pseudoscientific arguments often rely on logical fallacies, appeals to magical thinking, and a lack of empirical support from controlled experiments, (e.g., homeopathy). In order to successfully evaluate such claims, critical thinking skills are necessary. Without such skills, children would grow up with little regard for science and evidence.