Student “Religious Liberty” laws may impact minority faiths in the classroom

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COLUMBUS, OH – On November 13, the Ohio House of Representatives passed House Bill 164, the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019.” HB 164 was sponsored by Rep. Timothy E. Ginter (R) and had 39 co-sponsors, all Republicans.

Of the 99-member body of the Ohio House, 59 Republicans and only two Democrats cast “yes votes.” Democrats cast all 31 “no votes.”

The bill now moves to the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate for approval. If passed, it moves on to Governor, Mike DeWine (R) to sign before it becomes law.

 

Ohio House of Representatives Chamber – Image credit: Antony-22 [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act

Currently, Ohio public school students can only engage in religious speech during their free time, such as during lunchtime. The “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” would extend that window for religious speech throughout the school day.

Here is an excerpt of HB 164 as passed by the House:

Sec. 3320.01. (A) Sections 3320.01, 3320.02, and 3320.03 of the Revised Code shall be collectively known as the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019 .”

(B) As used in sections 3320.01 to 3320.03 of the Revised Code, “religious expression” includes any of the following:

(1) Prayer;

(2) Religious gatherings, including but not limited to prayer groups, religious clubs, “see you at the pole” gatherings, or other religious gatherings;

(3) Distribution of written materials or literature of a religious nature;

(4) Any other activity of a religious nature, including wearing symbolic clothing or expression of a religious viewpoint, provided that the activity is not obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent. Sec. 3320.02.

(A) A student enrolled in a public school may engage in religious expression before, during, and after school hours in the same manner and to the same extent that a student is permitted to engage in secular activities or expression before, during, and after school hours.

(B) A school district, community school established under Chapter 3314., STEM school established under Chapter 3326., or a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall give the same access to school facilities to students who wish to conduct a meeting for the purpose of engaging in religious expression as is given to secular student groups, without regard to the content of a student’s or group’s expression.

Sec. 3320.03.  No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

As outlined in HB 164, religious speech includes prayer, religious gatherings, and the distribution of religious printed matter. This would appear to protect the distribution of religious flyers. Religious speech is further defined as also including symbolic clothing, as long as it is not “obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent.“

It is unclear under this bill what may constitute “obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent.“

The “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” would also allow religious speech in classwork such as essays or answers to questions. The language is vague.  ACLU of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels has suggested that creationist responses to biology questions would be permitted and treachers would be unable to penalize students answering with faith-based answers. Daniels noted that the bill “clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.”

The primary sponsor of the bill, Timothy E. Ginter, was elected in 2014 and represents District 5. Rep. Ginter has been an ordained minister for 34 years and is a current pastor. Last September, Ginter sponsored HR 180 which proposes to declare pornography a public health hazard. He also sponsored HB 297, which would make it easier to donate to Crisis Pregnancy Centers.

Glinter disagrees with Daniel’s assessment.  This bill would allow religious speech in homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Glinter noted, however, that student answers must be consistent with curricular teaching. “It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said, and added, “This doesn’t give [a] student a get-out-of-jail free card.”

However, teachers are accredited based on their knowledge of the subject matter they teach. Teachers may not be familiar with all religious traditions depending on their subject expertise and the bill provides no guidance on how grading could occur given the circumstance. This could make it difficult for any teacher to adequately judge the “substance and relevance” of religious speech.

The ”Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” would bar school boards from limiting a student’s voluntary religious speech. It would allow a teacher to provide a “reasonable amount” of classroom time for moral or patriotic activities.

While participation in these activities is described as “voluntary,” the burden to object would be on the student or their legal guardians. This bill fails to specify how to resolve any conflict that would arise from students who might differ from their parents or legal guardians in their religious beliefs.

That judgment may depend on whether the coursework is in the hard sciences, the soft social sciences, or the humanities.

(U.S. Air Force graphic)

 

A similar law was passed in Mississippi in 2013 that permits the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints in public schools. It also allows religious speech in-class assignments. In Mississippi, the bill passed almost unanimously.

Whether these types of bills and legislation violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S Constitution as well as how such legislation may violate the rights of students in minority faiths or those who may be agnostics or atheists remain untested.  TWH will continue to follow the progress of this legislation and report on new developments.