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How can this possibly be constitutional in a secular republic?

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signed into law a very dubious piece of legislation that not only now allows public schools to release students from academic classes every day to attend religion courses off campus — but also authorizes school boards to use tax money to cover the cost of transporting those students to these so-named “released time” courses.

The secular watchdog nonprofit American Atheists denounced the new law as the “most extreme church release time bill in the country.”

It’s a lose-lose situation for minority-religion and nonreligious students, and for separation of church and state. The law dilutes the academic experience of students who choose to attend released time classes — prioritizing the acquisition of religious fancies over real knowledge. Knowledge-seeking Peters are ill-served by accommodating the spiritual indulgence of fact-doubting Pauls. The law also steals precious tax-funded money that could be used to educate non-Christian students to instead finance transportation of released-time pupils, mainly Christian, to faith classes.

The Constitution is clear that the United States’ secular government has no business funding religion in any way, shape or form (although the U.S. Supreme Court curiously seems to be warming somewhat to the idea). But the Christian Right, with increasing forbearance if not active encouragement of the Trump administration, relentlessly continues to find new ways to embed beliefs and rituals of the faithful into accepted public governance and tax-funding standards.

The new law (HB 2542/SB 2473), effectively overrules a December 2019 decision by the Knox County school board to end its release-time program that previously allowed students to miss just one academic class a month to attend services at a nearby church (not the one hour daily mandated by the new law for eligible students who choose to utilize it for faith activities off campus). The language of the final legislation says the new law:

“… requires a public school to excuse a student from school to attend a released time course if requested by the student’s parent or legal guardian even if the local board of education has not adopted a policy on released time courses; authorizes local boards of education to transport students attending a released time course to and from the place of instruction if the entity providing the instruction reimburses the LEA for the services. – Amends TCA Title 49.” (boldface mine)

The genesis of such a wrong-headed, arguably unconstitutional law are misassumptions common among citizens in the Trump-enthralled evangelical South. This statement by Gov. Lee underscores this mischaracterized thinking:

“The separation of church and state is never intended to keep people of faith out of government,” he told the Tennessee Legislative Prayer Caucus, the Tennessean reported, “but to keep government out of the church.”

Which, of course, is not the issue. The second amendment was intended to keep coercive religious influence out of government, not people of faith. The Founding Fathers viewed American government potentially held hostage by any one faith as an existentially alarming idea (they saw the horrors that inflicted on medieval Europe), while also supporting keeping government out of religion as much as practicable.

As the Trump administration — specifically the president, the theocracy-peddling attorney general and Rapture-awaiting secretary of state — become more and more entwined with the Religious Right, these wedge religious insertions against the Constitutional order require close and continuing scrutiny. They proliferate by the day, as evangelicals labor tirelessly to transform America into the theocratic “Christian Nation” of their pipe dreams.

The new Tennessee law, besides its constitutional concerns, offers practical, academic downsides.

Under this bill, church release time may replace up to 180 class hours — 22.5 school days — each year, harming every student’s education. The fact that students participating in church release time can’t be held responsible for missing class means teachers won’t be able to cover as much material as they normally would …” Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists, who submitted testimony opposing the legislation, said in a statement. “Sadly, with the passage of this church release time bill, students and parents will see further deterioration of Tennessee’s already poorly ranked education system,” added Gill. “This is unfair to all students — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic — who deserve to have bright futures made possible by public education.”

Currently, Tennessee is ranked 38th in the country in U.S. News & World Report’s list of best and worst U.S. states for pre-kindergarten through high school education.

American Atheists’ Gill also charges that the new law also “strips school boards and communities of their decision-making and is nothing less than an attack on local control over education,” and that it will unnecessarily split Tennessee student bodies “into two camps — religious majority children versus religious minority and nonreligious children — making the latter targets of bullying. … It’s beyond irresponsible.”

It also very much seems to be beyond unconstitutional, considering tax money and precious public-school time is being spent accommodating students’ religious indoctrination.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...