Montana AG bans critical-race theory programs amid red-state backlash

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen declared Thursday that many critical race theory programs violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws, joining red states battling the woke race-focused movement sweeping the nation.

In an Attorney General’s Opinion, which carries the weight of law in Montana, Mr. Knudsen said school districts, government entities and employers could lose grant funding or be liable for damages for treating students and employees differently based on race.

The opinion came in response to a May 12 request from Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who asked for guidance on the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed grant priorities for advancing racial equity that cite antiracism guru Ibram X. Kendi and the 1619 Project.

“Montana law does not tolerate schools, other government entities, or employers implementing CRT and antiracist programming in a way that treats individuals differently on the basis of race or that creates a racially hostile environment,” Mr. Knudsen said in a statement.

His opinion listed three prohibited categories: racial segregation, race stereotyping and race scapegoating, saying they violate state and federal civil-rights laws “because they constitute racial harassment and/or require authority figures to engage in activities that result in different treatment on the basis of race.”

He cited “privilege walks” and telling employees to be “less white.”

“Committing racial discrimination in the name of ending racial discrimination is both illogical and illegal. It goes against the exceptional principles on which our nation was founded and has no place in our state,” Mr. Knudsen said.

Other examples include grading or disciplining students differently based on race; separating people into race-based groups; assigning “fault, blame, or bias” to individuals or groups on the basis of their race; and requiring individuals to “admit privilege,” “reflect,” “deconstruct” or “confront” their racial identities.

“Nothing in this Attorney General’s Opinion will restrict expressive activities protected under the First Amendment, including academic freedom or political student speech,” the statement said. “There are many bad ideas, such as the Communist Manifesto, and fraudulent curriculums, like the 1619 Project, that do not violate civil rights laws when taught in Montana schools.”

At the same time, the AG’s office said, “much of the training and programming done in the name of ‘antiracism’ perpetuates and glorifies racial stereotypes and division in a way that violates the law.”

The 1619 Project is a New York Times series that reframes U.S. history with slavery at the center of the narrative, while critical race theory teaches that the legal and governance systems in the U.S. are inherently racist and retain economic and political power for Whites by oppressing people of color.

Mr. Knudsen was one of 20 Republican attorneys general who signed a letter last week urging Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to reconsider the proposed federal grant priorities, calling them “a thinly veiled attempt at bringing into our states’ classrooms the deeply flawed and controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.”

The boom in diversity, inclusion and equity training, consultants and curriculum comes with Democrats, activists and others focused on fighting “systemic racism” in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

The push has sparked a backlash on the right, with at least three states — Idaho, Oklahoma and Tennessee — passing laws this year to bar discriminatory race-based teachings in public schools.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signed a bill that prohibits teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed May 7 a bill banning the teaching of certain “critical race theories” over the objections of state Democrats who said it would prevent discussing the role of race in, for example, the Osage Indian murders and the Holocaust, which Republicans denied.

Mr. Stitt said “we must keep teaching history in all of its complexities and encourage honest and tough conversations about our past,” citing the Oklahoma City bombing, the Tulsa race massacre, and the Trail of Tears.

“We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she to feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex. I refuse to tolerate otherwise,” Mr. Stitt said in a video message.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little in April signed legislation banning public schools from forcing students to affirm or adhere to discriminatory beliefs in what supporters described as a preemptive strike.

Ms. Arntzen praised the attorney general’s opinion, calling it a “very reasoned and thoughtful document that reinforces appropriate guardrails on how our schools can easily avoid crossing the line from instruction to discrimination.”

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