Ohio’s state House of Representatives has passed a bill that some critics fear could require teachers to accept faith-based answers on school assignments ― even if those responses are contradicted by scientific facts.  

The Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019, which passed the state House 61-31 on Wednesday, generally seeks to protect public school students’ right to express their faith on school grounds. But one controversial aspect of the proposed legislation is receiving scrutiny for dictating that schools can’t “penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.”

The bill states that Ohio public schools must allow students to engage in religious expression while completing homework, artwork and other assignments. It also says that student’s grades for these assignments will be calculated “using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

How exactly this grading standard will be applied remains open to interpretation, experts say, which has set off significant debate among Ohio lawmakers and advocacy groups.

Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes claims the bill would technically allow students in social studies or science classes to refer to Bible stories (such as Noah and the Ark) as true historical events, or to characters from scripture (such as Adam and Eve) as real, historical figures. The bill mandates that educators must not penalize “religious responses that fly in the face of science and accepted facts,” Sykes said.

“As the bill is currently written, it requires teachers to accept answers that could be scientifically inaccurate so long as religious doctrine says they are true,” Sykes told HuffPost in a statement. “A K-12 public school education is intended to open minds and allow free thought, however we are wading in dangerous territory if we refuse to accept facts and science in educational settings.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio’s chief lobbyist, Gary Daniels, said that his organization fully supports protecting public school students’ religious liberty. But he believes that this particular bill is unnecessary since these rights are already protected by the First Amendment and Ohio’s constitution.

Daniels said he is also concerned about another part of the bill that mandates that public school students may engage in religious expression “in the same manner and to the same extent” that students are permitted to engage in secular expression.

Hypothetically, Daniels said, this could mean that if one set of students organizes a school assembly about suicide prevention that focuses on best practices from a clinical perspective, the school would also need to allow religious students to hold an assembly that teaches the answer to suicide prevention is getting right with God.  

“At minimum, this bill is going to confuse administrators and students and in the worst case, it’s going to cause constitutional violations,” Daniels said.

But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Timothy Ginter, is insisting that the criticism his proposal is getting stems from overblown “urban myths.” In a statement sent to HuffPost, Ginter said that his bill will not allow students to submit inaccurate classwork in the name of religion. 

At minimum, this bill is going to confuse administrators and students and in the worst case, it’s going to cause constitutional violations.
Gary Daniels, American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio

For example, he said that if a class is being tested on the theory of evolution, all students must show that they understand the subject as it was taught. 

“A student would still not be allowed to say, “My religion tells me that the world was created and is only 6,000 years old, therefore I don’t have to answer this question,’” Ginter said. 

On the other hand, if students are asked to write a book report on any book of their choosing, the bill would make sure students aren’t penalized for choosing to write a book report on the Bible’s Book of Job, Ginter said.

HuffPost requested examples of situations in which the bill would create greater religious freedom for students in science or in history classes but did not receive a response from Ginter’s office.

Ginter said that his bill is necessary because of increased pressure on schools from groups that he claims are “biased against Ohio students’ religious freedoms.”

“Many school officials are confused and frankly, intimidated by the threat of litigation from these well-funded groups,” Ginter said. 

Yet whatever Ginter’s intentions with the legislation, “the plain language of the bill is what a court is going to look at,” Daniels said. “Taken alone in that context, the language is too broad and too vague.”

As written, the statute could protect a student’s right to discuss creationism in a science assignment on evolution, according to Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami who specializes in the First Amendment’s speech and religion clauses. But it could also allow a biology teacher to refuse to credit a creationism-based answer to a question about evolution — not because the answer is religious, but because under “ordinary academic standards,” the answer is wrong, and under “ordinary academic standards,” teachers do not give points for wrong answers. 

How the bill will be interpreted in courts ultimately hinges on what counts as “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance” and what counts as “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

“And, of course, how these key parts of the statute are interpreted will depend on who is interpreting them,” Corbin said. 

The bill is being sent to Ohio’s Republican-controlled Senate for consideration.

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