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Texas Senate’s Approval of Religious Expression Reveals False Dichotomy

Sometimes it takes good news to reveal how bad things really are.

A headline yesterday in the Dallas Morning News stated plainly, “Senate Approves Religious Expression Measure,” referring to the Texas Senate. Yet, it is peculiar: hadn’t the First Amendment of the United States – and virtually every state constitution, as well – secured our right to the free exercise of our religions, as well as the expression of our beliefs (which “free exercise” necessarily entails”)?

The first two paragraphs reveal the deeper story here:

Texas students’ religious viewpoints in class assignments would be treated the same as secular expression under legislation approved by the Senate and sent to the House.

Under the legislation, religious beliefs expressed in homework, artwork and other assignments would be judged by traditional academic standards. Students couldn’t be penalized or rewarded because of the religious content of their work.

That this legislation is necessary means that students who express their religion – through speech or inclusion of religious words, symbols, or imagery in their assignments – have and are being penalized for doing so. (Presumably, some may also be rewarded.) As the story indicates, the quality of a student’s work could be judged differently for choosing to express some aspect of religion than a work that expresses something only “secular.”

When America’s Founders crafted the First Amendment, they included a number of protections, including clauses guaranteeing the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. It must be noted that doing so was both superfluous and necessary. It was superfluous in that, as noted above, practicing one’s religion necessarily entails the right to speak about it, so speech is speech, regardless of content. It was necessary because practicing religion involves more than just speech.

Nevertheless, the fact that there are these two clauses has led many Americans over the past seven decades to increasingly put religious speech and “non-religious” speech into separate categories. This misunderstanding (out of ignorance by many, but deliberate by others) coupled with the oft-misapplied Establishment Clause, has been used as a battering ram against religious expression in the public square, schools, and government. (I’ve addressed this misapplication most recently in my post, “The ACLU Takes on James Madison and the Founders on School Prayer.”)

The key to remember is: speech is speech, regardless of its content and the philosophical or religious presuppositions it conveys. Some worldview or another is reflected anytime anyone opens their mouth or puts words to paper. To restrict certain types of speech because it flows from one worldview and not another is to violate both the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment.

That religious speech has apparently been penalized and not afforded the same respect as all other speech in Texas is worrisome, but not surprising. This false dichotomy reveals itself in myriad ways across America, often being pushed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. But they are wrong, and we can be glad that the Texas Senate, at least, is standing up to them.

Of course, the American Civil Rights Union is standing up for the civil rights of all Americans, too.