Ohio lawmakers clear bill to expand religious equality in public schools

If public school students turn in work saying the earth is only 10,000 years old, they cannot be penalized under Ohio House Bill 164 if its their religious beliefs. (Laura Hancock/cleveland.com)

Ohio’s legislature is looking at a measure that would prohibit public schools from penalizing students for turning in work that expresses their religious beliefs.

HB 164, known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019, was sent by the House to the Senate on Nov. 13.

Some have called the proposed measure unnecessary or valuing religion more highly than secularism. One critic said under the bill, if a student turned in an assignment stating that the Earth is 10,000 years old – a belief of some creationists – that they couldn’t get docked in their grade. However, the bill’s sponsor said it was not as simple as that.

The proposal:

  • Requires public schools to give students the same access to facilities if they want to meet for religious expression as they’d give secular groups.
  • Removes a provision that allows school districts to limit religious expression to lunch periods or other non-instructional times.
  • Allows students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent as a student in secular activities or expression.
  • Prohibits schools from restricting a student from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork and other assignments.

The bill is needed since students today face pressures over drug use, student violence and increasing rates of depression and suicide, said bill sponsor Rep. Timothy Ginter, Youngstown-area Republican.

“We live in a day when our young people are experiencing stress and danger and challenges we never experienced growing up,” he said.

Ginter said he’s certain that permitting religious self-expression would be a positive step.

Amber Epling, a spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, said that in an analysis of the bill by the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, “they cannot be rewarded or penalized for the religious content in their assignments.”

She believes the bill could result in teachers accepting assignments that fly in the face of science.

But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.

“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.


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