American Humanist Association | Humanist Network News Ezine Archives

Mo. State Bill Could Force Religion into College Classrooms
Apr. 18, 2007

The Missouri House of Representatives recently passed a bill to protect intellectual diversity in college classrooms. But the bill gives special protection for Christian fundamentalism.

The Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act (HB 213) purports to defend the academic freedom of college students and professors who wish to present different viewpoints than those commonly espoused on campus without fear of discrimination.

Protected viewpoints include religious beliefs, as the bill states institutions must take steps to "include intellectual diversity concerns in the institution's guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant." (emphasis added)

Professors must develop "methods for disseminating best practices to ensure that conflicts between personal beliefs and classroom assignments that may contradict such beliefs can be resolved in a manner that achieves educational objectives without requiring a student to act against his or her conscience" or students and faculty may be able to take legal action.

The bill was inspired by Emily Brooker, a Missouri State University student who sued the school for alleged violations of her First Amendment rights. According to the Columbia Missourian, Brooker, a Christian, was assigned a project in a social work class to draft a letter to the Missouri General Assembly in support of gay adoption. She refused based on her beliefs and sued the university with help from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group. The college reached an out-of-court settlement with Brooker last November.

Coincidentally, the complaint was prompted by a visit to Missouri University by David Horowitz, an ultra-conservative pundit who fights against what he calls the "liberal bias" of the majority of professors teaching today. He has championed an Academic Bill of Rights to promote "an academic environment where decisions are made irrespective of one's personal political or religious beliefs."

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has strongly criticized HB 213. In fact, "There is a coalition of groups working against this bill and others like it in other states. It is called the Free Exchange on Campus Coalition," stated Nicole M. Byrd, AAUP Government Relations Associate, in an interview with Humanist Network News.

Byrd explained that for the bill to become law, it must be approved by the Missouri Senate and governor. "So far there is no word on the bill in the MO Senate. The procedure is that it goes to the education committee first. It could die in committee, it could make it to a floor vote.... [It's] too soon to tell."

"All of these 'Academic Bill of Rights' seem to use the language of 'diversity' to favor views that lack academic support," said Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. "But this is the first piece of legislation I've seen that specifically singles out Biblical inerrancy for special protection from intellectual challenge."

Many professors at Missouri State University are opposed to the bill. In a column she published in the University News, Patricia Brodsky, professor of foreign languages and literature at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, wrote: "All higher education institutions in Missouri have policies and procedures that deal effectively with alleged faculty misconduct. In Missouri and throughout the United States, proven cases of faculty political misconduct are rare or non-existent. There is no widespread problem which legislation needs to 'solve.'"

Brodsky goes on to state that almost identical legislation has been introduced in Virginia, Georgia, Montana and South Dakota, while similar bills have been defeated in two dozen states.

Elaine Friedman is the editor of Humanist Network News, the weekly e-zine of the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Editor's Note: The AAUP points out what is perhaps the greatest problem posed by the bill. "Who is to determine if a particular class or program is 'intellectually diverse' enough? If a board or legislator feels that something is missing in a class, would they have the prerogative to insist institutions change the class or program to meet their definitions?"

What do you think? To send a letter to HNN, click here or use the "Letter to the Editor" link that appears in the box in the upper right hand corner of every article in HNN.

Appignani Bioethics Center