A new state law allows students to skip school for religious education classes

A new state law that allows religious education during the school day is causing some controversy.

House Bill 1425 would allow students to leave school for up to three classes a week to receive outside religious instruction.

The bill narrowly passed the House and Senate over opposition from Republicans and Democrats, but was ultimately signed into law by the governor on June 5. News 9 met with the state superintendent to discuss his vision for how this program will work.

“I love it, I love it,” said State Superintendent Ryan Walters.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters says he supports House Bill 1425, which calls for religious expression in Oklahoma schools.

“It is very important that we protect our religious freedoms. “It’s one of the most basic freedoms we have as a country, so we want to protect those things,” Walters said.

The new law creates a “free time course,” a period of time during which a student is excused from school to take a course on religion or morals. “You allow churches to come into the school and they go to the school board and say, I want to do this type of activity,” Walters said.

Walters says the Oklahoma State Department of Education is working with local school boards to set parameters.

“We need more involvement from churches and religious groups in our schools,” Walters said.

Now the Satanic Temple says it has plans to participate. A social media post said the signing of the bill makes “Oklahoma the first state to offer students credit for religion and morals classes at the Satanic Temple.”

“It’s not going to happen,” Walters said.

This was one of the arguments made by legislators during this legislative session. They said the bill was too vague and would open it up without enough oversight of the curriculum.

Walters says the OSDE will only allow recognized religions to participate.

“We will never allow Satanists in our schools,” Walters said.

The bill would allow students to be excused for a maximum of three classes a week, or a maximum of 125 classes a year.

Additionally, the law has the following parameters:

1. The student’s parent or legal guardian gives written consent before the student participates in the exempt class time;

2. No school district funds are expended other than de minimis administrative costs, and no school district personnel, equipment, or resources are involved in the delivery of instruction;

3. An independent entity maintains attendance lists and makes them available to the school district and the board of education;

4. All transport to and from the venue is the sole responsibility of the independent entity, the student or the student’s parent or legal guardian;

5. The independent entity or the student’s parent or legal guardian shall indemnify and hold the school district harmless from any liability arising from conduct that does not occur on school property under the control or supervision of the school district, and the independent entity maintains appropriate insurance for this purpose ;

6. The student is responsible for any missed school classes; AND

7. The superintendent of the school district, the principal of the school in which the student is enrolled, or their designees, shall have reasonable discretion regarding the scheduling and timing of dismissed classes; provided that a student may not be excused from participating in free-time activities during any class in which the subject matter taught is subject to the grading requirements set forth in Section 1210.508 of Title 70 of the Oklahoma Statutes.

“It’s about freely expressing your beliefs. You don’t have to express them, we don’t force you to,” Walters said.

Even amid two lawsuits against the state-owned Catholic charter school, Walters says he’s not worried the new law violates the constitution.

“Look: the separation of church and state is a complete myth, invented by Supreme Court justices,” Walters said. “Frankly, I think it’s critical for the future of our country and our state to have strong faith-based communities, and I will continue to do everything I can to support that,” Walters said.

The act will not apply to charter schools. It is scheduled to enter into force on November 1.