Lawmakers are pushing to muzzle teachers. Kansans who love unvarnished fact must push back.

February 20, 2022 3:33 am

Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, attends a Feb. 16, 2022, hearing of the Senate Education Committee in the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Teachers are the enemy.

That’s the message a pair of bills debated in back-to-back hearings Wednesday in the Kansas Legislature sends. The proposed laws, which came out of GOP-controlled education committees, would stifle the ability of K-12 teachers to teach historical fact and diverse points of view, eliminate the affirmative defense for educators, and broaden the ability of parents to challenge books and just about everything else in school libraries and classrooms.

One of the bills would make it a crime for teachers to use material deemed “obscene” under the longstanding Supreme Court definition, which uses a three-part test that includes prevailing community standards.

That last part is redundant, because it’s already a crime to expose minors to obscenity. But it plants the suspicion, doesn’t it? Just what are those teachers showing our kids? It could be pornography without redeeming social or artistic value, according to the Miller Test, and we must stop it!

The bills, HB 2662 and SB 496, appear to be modeled after other proposed legislation spewing from the conservative Heritage Foundation, according to reporting from Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter. The Washington, D.C., based think tank has a nice logo — a Liberty Bell —and has been influential since the days of Ronald Reagan. Until recently, its primary mission was climate change denial, but lately it’s jumped on the critical race theory firewagon. It claims that American institutions are not inherently racist because, hey, wasn’t that settled during the Civil War?

Kansas State Board of Education member Deena Horst, left, and Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, sat together despite being on opposite sides of a House and Senate debate about imposing unprecedented public disclosure laws applicable to Kansas public schools regarding student curriculum and teacher training materials. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas State Board of Education member Deena Horst, left, and Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, sat together despite being on opposite sides of a House and Senate debate about imposing unprecedented public disclosure laws applicable to Kansas public schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Only seven people testified in favor of the “parental rights” and “transparency” bills on Thursday, while more than 100 opposed them. The lead for Team Christ was taken by Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, a Topeka outfit that says its vision “is a Kansas where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished.” Jones said the proposed legislation would give parents an opportunity to shield children from objectionable material. An opposing voice belonged to Chapparal High School senior Mattelyn Swartz, who plans to become a teacher. She said the Senate bill would limit educational opportunities for students, tie the hands of educators, and prevent a “learning environment that is engaged and individualized.”

But really, that’s the point.

These hardcore GOP poohbahs would like to inject themselves between you and every aspect of civic and cultural life. They have largely succeeded here in Kansas. They have managed to strip the governor of her emergency powers to deal with the pandemic; rammed through legislation during a historic special session to resist federal vaccine mandates; and prescribed punishment for employers who refused to grant vaccine exemptions based on a declaration of faith. One of the education bills debated Thursday would shield conservative-minded teachers from consequences, such as negative evaluations or job loss, if they refused to teach ideas that conflicted with their religious or moral beliefs.

These folks talk a lot about freedom, but what they really mean is the ability to do just what they want while making other folks — teachers, professors, medical boards — bend to their will. And it goes nearly without saying that when they talk about God, they mean the white Christian ideal, a kind of long-haired favorite uncle standing in a wheat field who understands that sometimes temptation is just too much.

The tone across a broad range of legislation has been consistent, that government (except for their own brand) needs reined in, expertise is not wanted and that any declaration of religious faith is enough to opt you out of any shared civic or social responsibility. At this rate, it won’t be long before a baptismal certificate will be accepted in lieu of having a valid insurance card in your Kansas registered vehicle.

The proposed legislation probably won’t pass, at least not this time, but that shouldn’t make you feel any better about the theocrats in the Statehouse trying to control our public schools. They are anti-education, just as the Tennessee Board of Education was when, in 1925, it passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution, leading to the Scopes trial. At the trial, a young high school teacher named John Scopes was prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential loser from Nebraska, a commanding orator and the leading fundamentalist Christian in America.

The tone across a broad range of legislation has been consistent, that government (except for their own brand) needs reined in, expertise is not wanted and that any declaration of religious faith is enough to opt you out of any shared civic or social responsibility.

– Max McCoy


The proponents of the bills could have used Bryan’s testimony at the hearings Thursday, if only he hadn’t died a few days after the verdict in the Scopes trial. His prosecution rested on the assertion that the law forbidding the teaching of evolution was necessary to defend parental rights, wasn’t trying to force religion on anybody, wasn’t bigoted. He defended miracles and attacked science. He dismissed expertise, appealed to patriotism, and recited a Robert Burns poem to rustic and simple pleasures.

“What right has a little irresponsible oligarchy of self-styled ‘intellectuals’ to demand control of the schools of the United States, in which 25 millions of children are being educated at an annual expense of $2 billion?” Bryan asked the jury during his closing argument. “Evolution is not truth; it is merely a hypothesis — it is millions of guesses strung together.”

It took a jury less than one minute to convict Scopes, who was fined $100.

In 1968, the Supreme Court finally ruled, in a case from Arkansas, that forbidding the teaching of evolution in public school was unconstitutional because it violates the establishment clause. The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to practice religion — or not — but it also forbids the government from establishing a religion. In the case of our theocrats, they demand preferred and deferential treatment, pass laws to provide the broadest possible shields to political allies and true believers, and say to hell with the rest of us. We already have religious exemptions from mask wearing and COVID-19 vaccinations granted solely by a claim of a severely (I’m sorry, sincerely) held belief.

This is not the way it’s always been.

Up until the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court had weighed the sincerity of belief, from a 1905 smallpox vaccination case to conscientious objectors to the draft during the Vietnam War. In Hobby Lobby, the court said a for-profit company could deny its employees health coverage for contraception based on the religious objections of the owners, and the question of sincerity was not disputed.

To all you parents out there who are truly concerned about filthy books in your schools, let me say this: There is one book that can be found in every school library across the land, and it has some of the most disturbing things you’d never want to read. There’s a story where this old guy offers up his daughters to strangers, and another in which the daughters get the old man drunk and have sex with him, and father children by him. There are tales in which it’s hard to keep an accurate body count. There are passages in which innocents are massacred and punishment for supposed sin is passed from generation to generation.

“It is full of interest,” observed Mark Twain. “It has some noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

Twain was referring, of course, to the King James Bible.

So here we are.

Mike O’Neal, a lobbyist with Kansas Policy Institute, endorsed legislation designed to mandate more curriculum information be shared with parents of public school students. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

It’s not possible to have a safe, responsible society when a large faction of us are given the equivalent of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in the form of unquestioned religious exemptions. What is in the hearts of men and women is known only to themselves, and perhaps their gods, but it is unreasonable for declared but unproven belief to be the shield against every form of accountability, from helping fight a global pandemic by being vaccinated to teaching students that scientific consensus says evolution is a real thing. Ditto with manmade global warming. For an educator to do otherwise is irresponsible.

This is not discrimination. It’s an existential test for our species.

And we’re failing it.

Nearly all of the stuff in the bills debated on Thursday, from parental rights to transparency, is already on the books in Kansas. When pressed for evidence parents were being denied access to educational materials, Kansas Policy Institute lobbyist Mike O’Neal talked himself into a knot before finally admitting he had no evidence, other than some anecdotes and a “suspicion of what is going on.”

The public has extraordinary public input into local school boards, so much so that it’s sometimes difficult these days for boards to function. Teachers are vetted by universities and licensed. The vast majority are professionals who take their jobs seriously, strive to give the students their best and would never think of using the classroom as a vehicle for personal or political objectives.

So, why the furor?

Because some Kansas lawmakers would like not only to micromanage classrooms, but to whitewash American history. Racial inequality is baked into the system, no matter what Heritage Foundation might say. Bigotry did not end with the Civil War, or when the Ku Klux Klan was outlawed in Kansas, or when Barack Obama was elected president. It persists as an appalling fact in American life, and a pressing problem that must be addressed before it poisons us all.

Ignorance is not the answer.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.