Controversial Schultheis public schools religion bill ends in a whimper

DENVER– A controversial bill that sought to expand space for religion in Colorado’s public schools failed to make it out of committee Monday. Even before the hearing began, the bill’s sponsor, Christian conservative state Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, seemed to have accepted the fact that his “Public School Religious Bill of Rights” would very likely fail to pass and so offered amendments that significantly weakened its provisions. In the end, so little was left of the bill that the majority Democratic committee members said it simply offered no new provisions on the matter. In the end, the four Democrats voted against the bill and the three Republicans voted for it.

Sen. Dave Schultheis
Sen. Dave Schultheis

Schultheis’s bill, SB 089 , in its original version would have allowed teachers to choose not to teach subjects such as evolution and sex education that might conflict with their religious beliefs. It also would have allowed them to distribute religious material and display religious symbols in class, among other things.

With passionate opposition witnesses lined up to testify, however, Schultheis amended the bill to merely require that questions concerning religious rights in the schools be presented to the Colorado Attorney General for consideration. The AG’s answers to the questions would then be distributed to the schools where they would be publicly displayed.

“I am not convinced that what we have in front of us today is necessary or in any way improves upon what we have today,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. He agreed with others that laws already safeguard the right to take such questions to the authorities.

But Schultheis made it clear that he meant to address a larger struggle with the bill.

“The purpose of this bill is to distribute awareness among the public school system of the religious liberties that are guaranteed to all citizens and, yes, even students, faculty and staff of public schools in accordance with the First Amendment of the Constitution,” Schultheis said at the opening of the hearing.

He said the battle over religious freedom in the United States was being fought in the schools.

“Public schools have become battle grounds in this fight to preserve religious liberty, fought in large part by threats of law suits by organizations such as the [American Civil Liberties Union]. Many public school officials, rather than offering a challenge to these suits because of the cost to do so, simply acquiesce to the ACLU’s demands.”

Most of the testimony heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee reflected the same kind of opposition that greeted a version of the bill backed by Schultheis in 2007. That earlier version also died in committee.

State Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said her perspective on the bill was shaped by her Jewish faith and by history.

“I appreciate that [public] schools do not teach Christmas,” she said. She said the month of December breeds feeling of marginalization for non-Christians. “I feel like I am a second-class citizen or like I am not American.”

“It sounds like you believe that our school should be teaching the birth of Christ in December and you need to be aware that many children do not celebrate that holiday,” Hudak said.

Schultheis said that his amended bill would only ask a neutral party to weigh in on controversial questions and that it was a provision that could be exercised by adherents to all religions.

“I could not disagree with Sen. Schultheis more,” said Steve Foster, senior rabbi at Denver’s Temple Emanuel. “I’m glad that the ACLU is on top of this because it guarantees your right to practice your religion as you choose but it doesn’t give you the right to practice your religion to try to get me to change mine in order to make you whole.”

Foster said that the original bill could lend support for what he called the “tyranny of majoritarianism” and weaken the U.S. commitment to secular society.

State Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, responded to Foster’s critique by saying that he didn’t believe America was a secular society.

“You said we were a secular nation and I would disagree with you, sir.”

Renfroe said he didn’t want to see any religion prohibited. “It is true that all religions are under attack in our public schools– except for the religion of global warming.”

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, asked each speaker how they would feel if the bill was stripped down to only the section that required the AG be asked to develop answers on related religious questions that arise in the schools. Detractors said school districts can consult the AG at will.

I am looking for straight neutrality in the decision making, Schultheis said.

In the end the committee the bill as simply redundant.

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