Religious freedom: A new excuse for not having done your homework
Missouri this week passed its "right to pray" amendment with the support of nearly 80 percent of the state's voters, guaranteeing citizens the freedom to openly express their religious beliefs without interference. On the surface, making sure everyone can freely practice their religion sounds reasonable, but a closer look at some of the amendment's provisions shows why it is already highly controversial (and why the ACLU has already filed a lawsuit over it).
One clause that stands out is the provision that "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs." In other words, public school children (and their parents) need only to say that something conflicts with their beliefs to be exempt from following that portion of the school's curriculum. That part of the amendment wasn't included on the ballot, by the way--voters would have had to take the time to read the entire amendment on their own to know it was in there.
The obvious conflict that this would seemingly resolve is the opposition some parents have to their children learning evolution in school. The Missouri constitutional amendment would keep kids from participating in any lessons or assignments about evolution, or other science lessons that conflict with their parents' religious beliefs, for that matter. Maybe they can even skip science class altogether, since it might make them question the beliefs their parents are trying to teach them.
With science crossed off, what's next? Surely there are some literary works that will raise eyebrows among some parents, so kids can skip those in English class too. The same goes for some history lessons that might paint a certain religious group in a negative light. Once parents are done cutting out any lesson that might be objectionable from a religious point of view, their children might have a lot of free time during the school day.
The negative repercussions for the school system clearly start to add up. Will students who opt out of a lesson need to be put in a different classroom and taught by a different teacher during those class periods? Will their teachers have to put in extra work to prepare alternate assignments? How will skipping certain lessons affect their grade?
An even bigger concern should be whether teachers will start watering down their own lessons and cutting out anything that students might object to as a way of avoiding these kinds of problems. Not only will the students whose parents are defending their "religious freedom" then miss out on getting a well-rounded education, but so will everyone else.
Religious freedom is undoubtedly important, and children should feel free to express their religious beliefs in a school setting without persecution. But they should also be open to learning about other points of view and hearing what other people believe. Keeping ourselves shielded from those beliefs isn't the way to protect our religion; listening to others, engaging in dialogue, and respectfully disagreeing is a much better route. Those who learn about a broad range of ideas and beliefs yet still hold on to their own religious views are often the ones who have the strongest faith.