Intellectual diversity bill may help Christian students
JEFFERSON CITY – After many years of listening to complaints, Missouri legislators have the opportunity to reaffirm the First Amendment rights of students who are browbeaten by their professors for religious and moral beliefs different than their own.
Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, is hoping to reinforce students’ constitutional rights through the filing of House Bill 213, (HB 213), to be known as the “Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act.”
Cunningham said legislators have heard complaints of intolerant professors for years, but two other factors have converged this year to open the way for legislative action.
One of those factors was a poll commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the other was the experience of Emily Brooker, a former student at Missouri State University (MSU) in Springfield.
The poll questioned students in two major universities in the state – MSU and the University of Missouri. Some 50 percent of students polled said they believed they must agree with their professors’ viewpoints in order to get good grades.
In the case of Brooker, Cunningham said, “We finally have a documented formal complaint in the form of the Emily Brooker lawsuit.”
Brooker and other students in the MSU Department of Social Work were required to advocate for adoption by homosexual couples. Part of the assignment was that a letter be drafted by the class, signed by each student, and sent to the Missouri Legislature.
Brooker completed all facets of the work assignment, including helping to draft the letter, but refused to sign the letter because of her religious beliefs.
The social work department filed a Level 3 grievance against her for violation of its policies. One of the options of a Level 3 grievance is to dismiss the student from the program.
Brooker was subjected to a 2½-hour interrogation by an eight-professor “ethics” committee and was not allowed an advocate or a recording device in the room. Among the questions asked of her were, “Do you think gays and lesbians are sinners?” And, “Do you think I am a sinner?”
Of the experience, she said, “I had worked so hard for four years and may not even have had a degree. What if I wasn’t believed? They were all there to say they didn’t like what I was doing in the classroom. I felt like I wasn’t being understood.”
Brooker was required to sign a contract stating what she would do and what she would not do, which she did sign under pressure. On that condition, she was permitted to continue her studies.
“The uncertainty of whether I would actually get my diploma was the most fearful part of this for me. I was anxious every day,” she said.
Brooker graduated last May. Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed a complaint in federal district court on her behalf last October.
“I didn’t file the lawsuit to have anybody fired or the program shut down. I just wanted to protect other students,” she explained.
Officials at MSU agreed to settle on Brooker’s behalf last November, reimbursing her for attorney fees and clearing her academic record.
The university then commissioned a private external review of the university’s social work department. During the review, evaluators found the department’s learning environment to be toxic and hostile and noted that some professors bullied their students.
According to the report, professors discriminated particularly against religious students and tried to not let students of Christian background into the program.
Among the options offered by the evaluators was the suggestion that the staff be fired and the program be closed. However, the university chose one of the study’s alternative options for trying to salvage the program.
Cunningham’s bill would require that public institutions address the specific measures they will take to promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom and to ensure that students are notified of those measures and how to report violations.
Two amendments were added, one specifying that religious freedom be protected in the institutions’ guidelines on teaching and program development. This amendment was further amended to insert the phrase “including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant.”
This phrase caused some discussion in the House of Representatives with several strongly religious people voting against it. “Some asked, ‘What Bible?’” explained Cunningham. “The Quran? The Torah? That was part of the debate. It cut both ways with Christian legislators.”
In the end, the bill was passed in the House and sent on to the Senate.
Brooker, who now works in social services in Springfield, said she is pleased with the proposed legislation because it requires accountability in the schools to know what policies they have and to follow them.
“There were policies to protect me but either my professors were not informed or did not follow them,” she said.
Cunningham said religious discrimination is not limited to colleges but is going on in Missouri’s public schools as well. “We have an unacceptable situation in which teachers indoctrinate rather than educate,” she said.
She expects the bill to pass, saying, “I really do think the only thing that will stop this bill is if there’s not enough time…but I think we’ve got enough time.”