First up from the God Machine this week is some curious advice Oklahoma school districts have received from their state Attorney General’s office.
At a national level, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) is perhaps best known for his unsettling partnerships with the oil and gas industry, but this week, the far-right A.G. made headlines for a very different reason. The Tulsa World reported:
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has sent a letter to public school superintendents across the state vowing to defend religious freedom amid “veiled legal threats” over the distribution of Bibles on campus.“Few things are as sacred and as fundamental to Oklahomans as the constitutional rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion,” Pruitt wrote Tuesday. “It is a challenging time in our country for those who believe in religious liberty. Our religious freedoms are under constant attack from a variety of groups who seek to undermine our constitutional rights and threaten our founding principles.”
At issue is an organized effort on the part of local Christian activists to distribute Bibles to public-school children in several Oklahoma districts. The Freedom From Religion Foundation apparently followed up, contacting school officials with a reminder about the First Amendment. It led the state A.G.’s office to weigh in with guidance of his own, telling school district that current law protects “distribution of religious literature in public schools.”
To be sure, controversies like these pop up from time to time nationwide, but it’s quite unusual for a state Attorney General to directly intervene with dubious and unsolicited advice.
The details in cases like these make all the difference: courts have never said schools can give specific outside groups special access to children to promote Bibles or any other materials. What is legal, however, are open forums – if a school is going to allow distribution of one group’s materials, it has to open the door to everyone.
In a practical sense, that means if an Oklahoma public school allows the distribution of Bibles, it can either (a) also allow the other groups, including Satanists, the same access; or (b) face an expensive lawsuit the district is guaranteed to lose, bombast from the state Attorney General’s office notwithstanding.
Perhaps most importantly, this is hardly a question of “religious liberty.” No faith has an affirmative, exclusive legal right to enter public schools and provide religious books to kids. To point this out to school districts is to defend our civil liberties; it’s not an example of freedoms being “under constant attack.”
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The pope resolves a lingering dispute: “The Vatican has abruptly ended its takeover of the main leadership group of American nuns two years earlier than expected, allowing Pope Francis to put to rest a confrontation started by his predecessor that created an uproar among American Catholics who had rallied to the sisters’ defense.”
* Speaking of Roman Catholics, U.S. bishops this week announced their support for the international diplomatic agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
* State lawmakers in Tennessee very nearly approved a proposal to make the Christian Bible the state official state book, but the proposal was derailed this week.
* And what do Idaho, child-support judgments, and Sharia law have to do with one another? The fine folks at Wonkette take a closer look at one of the week’s stranger stories (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).