Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.
On October 5, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States denied cert in Phillips v. New York, a group of three cases that considered issues surrounding vaccines and religious exemptions. This post shortly explains the case and what denying cert means (and does not mean).
The Court found that the regulations violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)’s prohibition on burdening exercise of religion. The majority made every effort to make that decision narrow as possible – but it still has concerning implications for the future, and Justice Ginsburg’s ringing dissent raises very important questions.
When the Skeptical Raptor asked me to write about this decision, we intended that I would discuss Hobby Lobby and religious exemptions for vaccines. But this decision is too important to stop there, so while I also address the vaccination aspect, my discussion is about the decision generally.
From my point of view – as a secular individual who believes reproductive freedom is crucial to women’s equality – the decision has some positives, but also much to be concerned about (I hope the analysis will also be useful to those whose views are different from mine, however). It’s not, however, a decision that turns the United States into a theocracy, as some of the more impassioned posts I’ve seen on Facebook suggest. In some ways, actually, just the opposite.
According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), in its article Credit-for-creationism scheme unconstitutional?, the new creationist legislation being introduced into the Alabama House is probably unconstitutional. Incredibly scandalous news.
I am not a fan of Charter Schools for reasons that aren’t relevant to postings about skepticism and science. One of my issues with them is that the appear to be not very well regulated. In fact, the basic definition of charter school is that they receive public monies and less regulation as long as they produce results (usually higher standardized test scores). The definition of a charter school, according to the National Education Association (NEA), is:
Charter schools are publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.
NEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children. Whether charter schools will fulfill this potential depends on how charter schools are designed and implemented, including the oversight and assistance provided by charter authorizers.
This does not give them carte blanche to violate the constitution of the United States, specifically the Establishment Clause. A charter school in Michigan, the Byron Center Charter School, had this statement on their website (as recently as last week):
Religion Byron Center Charter School cannot promote a certain religion, it can however, teach both creation and evolution as a theory, and use the Bible as a historical reference.
Let’s break down that sentence. Yes, the school cannot promote a certain religion. Several Supreme Court rulings say they can’t, so it’s good to know they understand the US Constitution. No, they cannot teach both creation and evolution as a theory, since only evolution is a theory and creation is fairytale based on not one single bit of science. And to use the Bible as a historical reference? Well, there are some historical references in it, but they are infrequent, and frankly wrapped into fairytales and myths. So, that sentence could be cut down to “Byron Center Charter School cannot promote a certain religion.”
Apparently, they have changed their website this week to remove the offensive, unconstitutional statement. But just because they removed it from their website does not mean that they’re not teaching creationism in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I hope that the State of Michigan determines if they’ve been in violation of the law then shut them down.
As the NEA states, “Charter schools should be monitored on a continuing basis and should be subject to modification or closure if children or the public interest is at risk.” The public interest has been put at risk.
Missouri and Oklahoma have been at the forefront of the 2012 Republican push to add anti-science curriculum to public school science curricula in the form of creationism (apparently in the guise of Intelligent design). These initiatives fly in the face of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution, which simply states,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.
Over the years, several court rulings have clarified this clause to cover any public institution, such as publicly funded schools. The Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed lower court rulings that specifically state that the teaching of creationism in public schools violates the Establishment Clause. In McLean v. Arkansas, the judge ruled that creation science is not science because it depends on a supernatural intervention; in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of “creation science” was unconstitutional because it advanced a particular religious viewpoint; and in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a district court judge ruled that Intelligent design was another form of creationism (read that as religion).
So despite those very solid legal precedents, Indiana’s Senate Bill 89 will force public schools to teach creation science (which isn’t a science, other than incorrectly using the word science). Opposition to the bill is starting to appear, including religious individuals who find that creation science is “propounding pseudoscience of their own invention that is neither biblical nor scientific…”
It is ironic (or just plain cynical) that the same individuals who profess that there is some magical quality in the US Constitution are also the first to push laws that are in clear violation of one of the most basic tenets of that same constitution.