2011 Lege Wrap Up: Religious Freedom

It’s a biennial legislative tradition in Texas — trotting out a new batch of devious proposals to merge religion and government and attack religious pluralism. And 2011 was no exception.  As the dust settles, the news on this front is mostly good for advocates of religious freedom, as none of the problematic legislation TFN worked to oppose on this issue ultimately made it to the governor’s desk. This should be considered a major victory, given the influx of culture warriors who joined the Texas Legislature this session.

Here are some highlights:

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, waged a (regular and special) session-long, one-man crusade against the fictitious threat of Sharia law in Texas. He filed a both a constitutional amendment ( HJR 57) and a bill (HB 911), both of which prevented Texas courts from considering foreign or international law.  After watering down the language of his proposal — to pertain exclusively to Family Law cases and to prevent “foreign law” from contravening the U.S. Constitution, which is, of course, already the case — Berman managed to get his HB 911 voted out of committee. However, when it became clear that he was not going to get this bill onto the House floor for consideration, Berman made not one, not two, but THREE efforts to amend his provision onto larger bills passed by the House. But ultimately, the Senate showed no sympathy, refusing to incorporate Berman’s paranoia into Senate versions. Despite his persistent efforts, none of Berman’s anti-Sharia measures passed.

Science education also came under attack at the Legislature this year as creationists tried to open a new front in their anti-evolution crusade in Texas: college classrooms. Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, filed HB 2454, which would have barred universities from “discriminating against” faculty members or students based on the “conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.” In short, Zedler’s measure would have forced Texas institutions of higher education to look the other way when faculty and students present creationist arguments as legitimate science. Fortunately, Zedler’s efforts to reinstate medieval science in Texas colleges didn’t find much support among his fellow legislators, and the bill died quietly without a hearing.

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, made a serious attempt to bar local school boards from prohibiting the posting of the Ten Commandments in local classrooms. The obviously unconstitutional HB 79 never even got a hearing in committee, but that didn’t discourage Flynn, who filed his entire bill as an amendment to critical budgetary legislation considered by the House in the waning days of the regular session. But in the end, Flynn was forced to pull down his amendment in the budget meltdown at the end of the session. The measure did not pass.

Rep. Jim Landtroop, R-Plainview, made a run at weakening the safeguards the state imposes upon public school Bible courses. His HB 3119 proposed expanding Bible courses from high school to middle school classrooms, while eliminating the existing requirement that teachers have certification in a relevant field. Fortunately, his fellow legislators wanted no part of these ill-considered proposals, and the bill died without a hearing.

While none of these frontal assaults on the church-state wall succeeded this session, the religious right achieved stunning success in their war on reproductive rights and women’s health this session. While such issue are mostly beyond the purview of TFN’s mission and advocacy work, as the state’s religious-right watchdog, we would be remiss if we didn’t note that those leading the attack against abortion, contraception and birth control did so from an explicitly religious motivation. It is not overstating the issue to say that the religious beliefs of an outspoken group of activists and legislators dictated crucial health policies in the state of Texas. That is not only an irresponsible way to make public health decisions; it is also a direct threat to religious liberty in our state.

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27 Comments

  1. Posted July 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    The VA cemetaries are not private property, they are government owned and operated. That places the VA in a corner as the purpose of a cemetary is to bury those who have served which is about as private thing that ever was.

    The Supreme Court has ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church has the right as a matter of First Amendment rights, to invade and desecrate the single most private event in one’s life, including that of birth. There is no right of privacy save as extrapolated from case law.

    This is a conundrum wrapped in a quandary wrapped in controversy.

  2. Ben
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    I agree with this summary of the situation:

    http://www.secular.org/blogs/jason-torpy/religious-groups-criticize-houston-va-respecting-families-wishes

    Here’s a small part:

    “The Liberty Institute and the volunteers at the cemetery fail to understand that participating in a veteran’s memorial service is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to serve the family, not one’s personal evangelical interests. In accepting a part in the ceremony, the volunteer becomes subject to the family’s wishes. If the family has not requested a certain type of religious ceremony, then volunteers who pray at them are violating the trust and confidence of the family. Would these volunteers, during their burial ceremony, appreciate being told “Allahu Akbar” from a well-meaning Muslim? Maybe the family would be offended and maybe not, but the government and its representatives, those volunteers, do not have the right to impose on the family a religious viewpoint without the family’s permission. This is not private religious speech or even public religious speech. These are comments from volunteers duly appointed by the National Cemetery Administration. Cemetery volunteers engage in government speech, not private speech, and so it is restricted to the wishes of the family.”

  3. Ben
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Below is a video describing the situation (from a Fox News POV).

    Watch it and imagine a similar situation, except that the volunteer attendees at funerals aren’t saying “God Bless You,” they are saying “Allah Ahkbar.” You think Fox News would get upset if the volunteers were told to stop doing that?

  4. Ben
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Here’s the latest:

    http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/military/article/Graveside-censorship-is-blasted-1453310.php

    Reading between the lines, it sounds as if there might have been occasions when Christian prayers have been imposed on grieving families who didn’t necessarily want or request that. That is a guess.

  5. Ben
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I will predict that as we learn more details, what they did at the cemetery will turn out to be perfectly reasonable and in accordance with the First Amendment. I’m only guessing that way because the wingnut blogosphere is outraged by what the cemetery is doing, and the wingnuts, as we all know, are usually idiots.

  6. Charles
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    It was a gesture of good will Gordon. My aunt LaUna, who is dead now, went on a long downhill slide into dementia, which became full-blown in her 70s. I had never seen anyone do that before, so I had no frame of reference to understand what was happening. However, looking back on it, I realize that a few odd items of behavior that I noticed in her late 50s were actually the beginning of it—no doubt about that now. As a result, I am more watchful of the older people around me me now. I feel sure that if I and other family members had noticed what had begun to happen early on in the matter, we might could have bought her several more years of lucidness before she slipped over the edge into oblivion.

  7. Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    I know Pete Olson, and although he is supported by the Mighty Right, he is too much of a professional to get wound up in this divisive issue. Nor can he afford to ignore it without peril.

    I don’t know the real story here, and expect to see the Good Old Bagby Two Step from the VA.

  8. Charles
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Gordon.

    I have been wondering about that VA banning in Houston that you mentioned. What was really going on there? The people over at Liberty Institute have their usual one-sided story where important facts are conveniently left out of the story. Do you know what those left out facts were?

    For example, I would guess that the verboten words were banned for activities on federally owned property o on federal property that was temporarily leased to a private organization where the federales maintained certain items of control in the terms of the lease agreement. No federal official would be stupid enough to try to dictate religious words that cannot be used to a private funeral facility located on privately owned property.

    What is the real story here?

  9. Posted July 5, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Charles, you concern about my confusion is taken as a gesture of good will. Do not worry about being confused by my writing or thinking. I only matters if I am confused about being confused.

    What you may see is inconsistency, and being consistent is consistent with being certain, of which I am not certain. I used to be, but today I am not certain..

    J’etait certain, mais maintenant j’ne suis pas sure.

  10. Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    My source on the prayer thing at the VA is Congressman Pete Olson (R), TX 22nd District. I have a hard time imagining that the VA would do such a thing. but after fifty years in public service I still get amazed at the stuff that goes on.

    The freedom of speech means no repression for what is said, but for the consequences thereof.

    Banning a speech (utterance, etc) before utterance is problematic if there are adverse consquenees that will reasonably follow. That used to be the “fire the the theater” clear and present danger concept.

    That has been changed in the bomb joke law. You can’t joke about bombs in the airport or on the plane … that’s a Federal no–no.

    In civil law one can said to threaten someone if the someone feels threatened, not what the threatener intended. This has shifted the repression of speech based on the fears of the listener, not the intent of the speaker’s speech. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets sued by an agoraphobic for the fear induced by the Exit sign.

    Or sued by the claustrophobic for the “Entrance” Signs.

    I am as concefned about the Righteous Right as my professional background was in public service including politics, propaganda, and psychological warfare. The present tizzy about prayers at schools and cemetaries is a trifle compared to the organization, effort and billions of expenditures by the Right (ACT.SANE, Tea Party, et al) to trigger a nuclear confrontation with Islam. That and the eradication of Muslim in the same fashion as the Final Solution.

    You want to get silly?

    http://wikiislam.net/wiki/Main_Page

    http://www.saneworks.us/indexnew.php

    Maybe someone should pray for divine intervention, before the Righteous do.

  11. Ben
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Me, too.

  12. Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Drinking soft drinks in or out of class is not relaed to freedom of speech or religion. Or the repression thereof, or of free speech.

    At least not yet. It could be.

    If the soft drink were prescribed by a religion;as an act of faith, then it might be banned as religious activity on public property in or out of the class room.

    It is unlawful to wear gang colors in many schools. If however, the gang colors were in fact symbolic of a specific religion or religious movement, some questions might be raised. That’s not far from the banning of the veil in certain schools like in France.

    The banning of prayer at funerals in the Houston VA Cemetary unless the prayer is approved by the VA isn’t like soft drinks either. If the VA gives approval to a prayer, this clearly is establishmentarianism. But banning the obsceneties of the Westboro Baptist Church at the main gates of the cemetary is un-Constitutional as in Gay bashing in Gods name is OK,But a prayer over the casket of the slain is an abomination.

    How about a little tolerance here? Is that so intolerable?

  13. Charles
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Ben. I have been kind of worried about Gordon over the past couple of months. His posts have seemed sort of confused and incoherent to me. I am a little bit worried about him—healthwise I mean.

  14. Ben
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Gordon, here’s an analogy for you:

    Let’s say you go to Eastside High School. You can buy a soft drink at lunchtime, during breaks, before school, after school, and between classes. But you can’t drink a soft drink during a class. Would you say they have banned soft drinks in that school? Of course not.

  15. Ben
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Gordon, you are not using words precisely. They have not banned prayer in schools; students can still pray.

    And they have not “banned prayer in a number of states”; anyone can pray in any state.

    I know nothing about your VA example, but I’m guessing you are not using words precisely there, either.

    Wow. Do I sound like Gene Garman?

  16. Charles
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I prayed up a storm in my public schools after 1962. It mostly had to do with math and trying to get out of public speaking roles. No one ever stopped me or said I could not do it. There were Bibles aplenty on the library shelves in my schools because the Bible is a book and books are what they put on library shelves (imagine that).

    Only two things stopped.

    1) Teachers and administrators were no longer allowed to lead groups of students in reciting a public prayer that these government officials had composed for everyone else—regardless of the kids’ own religious traditions. I was glad to see that go away because our teachers and faculty were Southern Baptists and Campbellites—and I did not like their theological perspective. In all of the time when I was a participant in those prayers, I do not recall a single child “coming to Jesus” because of those prayers. It was really a daily public exercise in taking God’s name in vain because the daily prayer was often yada, yada, yada—and let’s get on to the science lesson.

    2) Kids were no longer forced to memorize Bible verses and then stand up in front of the other kids in class to recite them each day. I was glad that one went away because I did not like public speaking in any form. Charles is the shy and retiring type in real life. If I ever come to a TFN reception, just look for the shy and bashful guy sitting alone in the corner of the room.

  17. Posted July 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    They have banned prayer in a number of states, and hiere in Texas the VA now prohibits religious prayer at funerals at the Veterans Cemetary in Houston, no mention of God or Jesus at a soldier;s funeral. This is way past any reasonable reason. The VA has to approve any services and prayers at the Houston Veterans Cemetary.

    Banning religion in the name of the state is no less establishmentarian than requiring prayer at a football game. While it is clear that the objective of the Rightreous Right to (re)establish religion, it is no less obvious that the Left wants to ban religion; which is reverse establishmentarianism. Godlessness is a religion that there is no God, and there are religions that do not have God(s).

    There is a Chinese saying that there is a web without a weaver. While there is a plethora of different religious concepts in China, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven is taken seriously by the Peoples Republic.

    If you want to pit secularity against religion, you will lose, and we will lose as both are examples of intolerance which is intolerable.

  18. Ben
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Gordon, they haven’t banned prayer in schools. Students are free to pray, with a few exceptions that I’m sure you are aware of.

  19. Posted July 5, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    The First Amendment does not guarantee an audience, but to shut them up is a violation. The exceptions to that are disturbing the peace, trespassing, and disorderly conduct which are wobbly concepts that are unevenly applied.

    The history of speech squelching on the basis of disturbing the peace, etc, has recently been reviewed by the Supreme Court of the Westboro Baptist Church that pickets funerals of deceased service personnel coming back from combat. The law tried to squelch their obnoxious clap trap, but it is clearly protected.

    Banning prayer in schools is on slippery ground, and it is not easy to predict where that will eventually go, given the Westboro case. Part of the problem is trying to make a difference between free speech and religion. Quite frankly, IMHO they are one and the same, and trying to pry religion from philosophy, Lords Prayer from Roberts Rules of Order, is fright with slopes to slide down on.

    I see two outcomes: we allow expression of religion with choice, or the religious will pull out of the public school system entirely (almost). That’s what the voucher system is. And, it’s a zero sum case. A dollar voucher is a dollar not budgeted for public schooling. The concept of a myriad of parochial schools was default prior to WW2, after which is was cheeper to go to public school.

    Some states have private schools that handle the richer students, which they can do and at the same time vote for poorer public shools. There’s the real choice. It’s integration or segregation, or some mish mash of both.

  20. Charles
    Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Well, the Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals think they are required to spread their beliefs in all social circumstances, and any attempt to curb that is a violation of their First Amendment ability to freely exercise their religion. The thing they do not understand is that the First Amendment does not guarantee them an audience in a public school, my bedroom at 3:00 a.m., and certain other venues where they are, quite frankly, not wanted.

    Their Mantra:

    “I just feel so persecuted.”

    The Truth:

    “I guess so. It has been my experience that other 2-year-old children feel similarly persecuted when they discover they are not allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and wherever they want.”

    Grow up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  21. Posted July 5, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Well, gosh. Let me see. What does it say:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    One violates this amendment if one established a religion which means a government makes it official, regardless of others. Also, if a govermetn prohibits the free expression of a relgion or the freedom of speech which necessarily includes religious expression, that government is in violation of the First Amendment,

    If someone doesn;t like a certain religiion and says so, that’s protected; If that someone uses the law to prevent someone else to advocate a religion, that law is un-constitutional, That works also if one uses the law to prevent an atheist from expressing his or her beliefs, that law too is un-constitutional.

    One cannot repress speech or the expression of religion, and the expression of religion are, by default, protected by the Consitution. The same applies in reverse, one cannot use the state to repress or exclude any form of expression, The exceptions to the freedom of speech comes under civil law as in libal or slander.

    The soft ground in the middle is defining whether a particular utterance was incorrect AND that it actually caused harm. Public figures are exempt from being harmed by libel or slander, so slander away. These laws occur after an utterance was made and there is damage.

    The law has been drifing into dangerous waters with the use of hate laws, or of legal precedent that determines harm from the viewpoint of the harmed, and not that of the intent of the harmer person.

    The US can not be a religious or a totally secular government as long as the expression of religion is an expression, and not a requirement.

    IMHO: banning prayer at a public event is an intrusion on the public’s right to hear, forcing people to listen to prayer constitutes establishment. The trucky part is the obligation foisted on another to say or to listen is the crux of the issue, It is a simple concept, you can;t force people to keep their mouth shut and/or ears open.

  22. jdg
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    USA is a secular country…..

  23. jdg
    Posted July 4, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    *******Gordon Fowkes Says:
    July 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Religious Freedom doesn’t mean freedom FROM religion. ******

    Yes it does.
    USA should is a secular country. Religion at home, religion at the church!
    Once you cross the line out your door/church you enter the secular world. Religious belief should NEVER dictate any government policy.

  24. Charles
    Posted July 3, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Radical. Nah!!!!! Dramatic maybe. But hey. History is by its very nature a collection of stories about many old things. I know members of the Religious Right do not show up or lurk here very often. However, just in case one did on July 4, 2011, I felt obligated to show them how the leaders of the Religious Right speak lies to them about American history to sucker them into supporting their dirty work.

  25. Posted July 3, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Charles, you don’t have to go to such radical extremes to make your point. The Pilgrims arrived in 1620, the Jamestown colony was founded May 7, 1607 (thirteen years earlier) by the London company, a joint stock corporation. It went bust and became the first bailout in American history.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamestown_Settlement

    Nice touch on the importance of the Tobacco crop, the smoking foundation of American liberty …. cough cought.

    It is easy to confuse the two colonies, as the legends are mixed in the same pitch. And it was post Civil War Yankee propaganda to mix the two stories. It wouldn’t do to recognize slave owning Southern plantation owners in the same breath as the Holy Rollers who ran out of beer enroute to Virginia and stopped on a Rock in Massachusetts.

    It is also spurious to claim who got first beside the Spanish who settled St Augustine in 1565, a life time ahead of either Corporate England or Puritan dissenters to arive stateside. And it should be noted that the Pilgrim colonists arrived without a major problem with hostile Indians.

    It appears that Captain James Smith, a rogue of the first order explored Cap Cod in 1614 and left one Captain Hunt behind to set up trade and look for gold. Hunt then lured two dozen Indians on board his ship in Cape Cod in 1614, and tried to sell them in Spain until Spanish priests secured the lot to be properly indoctrinated in the Catholic faith. This kind of poisened relations between Indians and white folk in the Massachusets bay area.. This left a bad taste in the Indian;s mouth so when a French ship arrived in 1617, the ship was attacked and burned, the remaining crew taken to never be seen again. Some say, some were eaten. If so, it was French cooking that paved the way for the Pilgrims.

    One of the nasty side effects of European exploratin was that the Indians didn’t have immunity from the Europeans who had survived a bunch of plagues, small pox, and who know what. As such the Indians in Massachusetts came down with a disastrous affliction that cleared a strip one hundred miles deep into the New England back woods from the coast.

    Unlike the Caribbean Indians a century before, they didn’t have syphilus to exchange for the small pox aka the Spanish curse aka French curse, pox, et al.

  26. Charles
    Posted July 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    The Religious Right is always saying that America was founded on the Bible and the Christian religion, pointing to the Pilgrims as “first arrivals” to plant their independent-from-the-Church-of-England religion in the New World. The truth is very different. The truth happened before the pilgrims ever got here. On this July 4, 2011, I think we should all take a look at something, listen closely, and watch closely.

    Member of the Religious Right are invited to watch too, but I suspect they will be huddled in some corner with Sergeant Schultz crying: ” I see nothing. I see nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

    Here you go folks:

  27. Posted July 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Religious Freedom doesn’t mean freedom FROM religion.

    Picking and choosing tbe content for State wide quasi religiousity is imposition of religion not freedom. It would be simpler to authorize the hiring qualified chaplains from whichever religious groups have systemic qualfications. How much this chaplain would be paid can be from full to none, as determined by the State Legislature, There could be some limits of how many of what kind would be available in any jurisdiction or could certify certain chaplains to service several districts as needed.

    The state would allow these chaplains office space and the mimimum of equipment needed to run an office ranging from nothing to a high tech station as needed. The provision of spare time for students to see Chaplains, or attend meetings, which time could be released for whatever the individual student wants to do, includig going home. Having an array of qualified priests, ministers, mullahs, whatever would allow for religious choice, and choice is freedom.

    This further would preclude involvement of the state in meddling with curricula and sticking to scientific standards.

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