News and Notes: March 2014

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

By George Kane

The next session of the Minnesota legislature opens on February 25. It will not be as intense for secular activists as last year’s session, when same-sex marriage dominated attention, but every year there are bills of concern. Conservative Christians are eternally committed to undermining Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state, and defining America as a Christian nation.

This crusade is championed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which provides model bills for conservative legislators to introduce in their states. Because there are Minnesota lawmakers who are members of ALEC, a religion-based bill introduced in other states could be introduced here, so if such a bill surfaced in another state, we would at least know what we could expect in ours.

The Student Religious Liberties Act, HB 1771 was introduced in the last session to encourage religious expression by public school students. Bills bearing the words “religious liberty” in their title are actually designed to create legal privileges for Christians and to permit them to discriminate on the basis of religion. This bill would prohibit schools from taking any action against a student expressing a religious viewpoint. If, for example, a student creates a hostile environment by preaching that gay students are condemned to hell, the schools could take no action to stop it. It would not allow the schools, in selecting student speakers at assemblies, to refuse to allow students to give speeches because of their intent to give religious testimony. The proposed law would guarantee students the liberty to create a religiously hostile school environment, and subject their fellow students to religious views to which their parents might not wish them exposed. It might even protect a student’s grade in biology class if that student denies the evolution of species. The bill was assigned to the Education Committee last year, which took no action on it. We are likely this year to see attempts to move it to the floor.

We are likely to see legislation driven by religious dogma either introduced as new bills or as amendments to the anti-bullying bills HF 826 and SF 783. Look for attempts by right-wing legislators to gut the anti-bullying bills with religious exemptions. It is hard to believe that anyone actually supports bullying, but conservative Christians are convinced the principal intent of the bill is to shackle Christians who are exercising their religious imperative to torment gays and lesbians. In several states, bills have been introduced to protect students from school discipline who are acting from “sincerely held religious belief.” I suppose there must be an expectation undergirding these bills that conservative Christian views will always be accepted as sincerely held, while non-Christian views will be dismissed as spurious.

Our legislative activism is more than just defending attacks from the religious right. Minnesota Atheists expects to support a couple of bills this year. One is to revise the marriage laws to permit tax exempt self-described atheist organizations to certify marriage celebrants. This was the topic of our January public meeting, and has previously been explained in the Minnesota Atheist. Minnesota Atheists is taking the lead position to draft and promote this legislation, with the support of the Humanists of Minnesota and the Secular Coalition of Minnesota. Another bill we support is HF 1946, which would rescind the prohibition on alcohol sales on Sundays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The current restrictions are vestiges of religious blue laws, but they are sustained and supported by economic interests. Most liquor store owners want to keep the restrictions, on the expectation that the public is getting all of its liquor purchases done on Monday through Saturday. They believe the market will force them to be open on Sundays, raising their overhead costs, without increasing their sales. The restrictions are opposed by customers and by liquor store owners near state borders, who are losing business to out-of-state competitors. August Berkshire wrote a column about this bill in the February issue.

Another bill to follow is HF 1906, which would prohibit ‘reparative therapy’ to attempt to change the sexual orientation of children.

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