Oklahoma bill would penalize teachers $10,000 for contradicting students’ religious beliefs

A controversial bill proposed in the Oklahoma state senate would make public school personnel – including teachers – personally liable for “promoting positions in opposition” to a student’s “closely related religious beliefs”. If passed, Senate Bill 1470 would give parents who file a successful lawsuit on behalf of their children a minimum of $10,000 per person per incident if the school fails to immediately stop the activity in question.

As Forbes Education contributor Peter Green points out that the bill’s sponsor, Oklahoma State Senator Rob Sandridge, may not have been thinking.

The bill does not specify which “deep help religious beliefs” are covered, meaning such a law would provide fertile ground for groups like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Satanic Temple, which have often challenged religious laws in this country.

Green makes a good point. After all, the bill leaves wide open how to determine whether a teacher or school official has promoted a position that contradicts a student’s religious beliefs in violation of the measure. What science lesson, to name one particularly vulnerable discipline, would be immune to the claims of all religious perspectives? According to Green, the resulting fear and uncertainty is likely a feature, not a bug, of the proposal:

[S]Such a law would have a supremely chilling effect on all classes, from history to science to health. The bill is designed to intimidate, and the law would require administrators and teachers to avoid anything that could cost them $10,000 or their job (the average teacher salary in Oklahoma is $42,000).

Adding new threats to teachers, the bill attempts to ensure that anyone found responsible for breaking it will have to pay out of pocket:

Anyone found liable for damages must make payment out of their own resources and receive no assistance from individuals or groups. Any evidence of receiving outside help will result in termination of their position…

Fortunately, this bill has no additional co-sponsors and seems unlikely to be defeated by the Senate Education Committee. Unfortunately, the legislation provides another example of the growing and troubling trend of policies and legislation designed to drive a wedge between some religious parents and public school officials trying to provide a comprehensive 21st century education to a religiously diverse student body. while remaining neutral towards religion. SB 1470 is a train wreck of a solution in search of a problem. The claim that large groups of religious students are routinely persecuted in our public schools is simply not true.

For more on this topic, including a 2020 column from BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler on how public schools protect religious freedom, check out BJC’s Religion in Public Schools resource page.

Ruth R. Culp