Whether public schoolteachers would have to give passing grades to students who provide religious answers in science classes was the main focus of a state Senate Education Committee hearing concerning a House bill on Tuesday.
“Students will neither be rewarded or penalized based on the religious or non-religious content of their work,” said Rep. Timothy Ginter, R-Salem, the bill’s sponsor.
The Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act was passed by the House 61-31 in November, receiving a handful of Democratic votes.
Ginter said the bill is “a clarification (of) what students can and cannot do in religious expression.”
But opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio say it would allow students to incorrectly respond to test questions and allow for prayers over a school’s loudspeaker.
Nothing included in the legislation would allow students to answer incorrectly based on their religious expression, Ginter told the committee. Students would be required to answer questions based on the material taught in the class.
For example, Ginter said, a student could hypothetically believe that Earth is held up by a giant tortoise, but “that would not be a passing answer in a class on evolution. … The key is that we are not allowing students to answer scientific questions incorrectly.”
However, the legislation would require schools to allow students to express their faith through dress or artwork or in assignments. It also would remove a section of state law that relegates student religious expression to lunch or other noninstructional time.
House Bill 164 would allow for explicitly religious clubs or extracurricular groups to have the same opportunities and access to facilities that secular clubs at schools in the state have.
Ginter emphasized that the legislation clarifies rights already outlined in the Ohio Constitution.
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist of the ACLU of Ohio, told House members last year that, although defending religious expression is important, the Ohio Student Religious Liberties bill would have the opposite effect by creating confusion rather than clarity.
“There is no evidence of widespread or notable problems of this type in Ohio,” Daniels said. “In the ACLU of Ohio’s experience, when problems do arise in schools, they are anomalies and treated as such.”
Daniels said Ohio students already enjoy the religious liberties detailed in the legislation, such as submitting work of religious nature for relevant class assignments and the right to form student religious clubs and hold prayers or reflections.
Cole Behrens is a fellow at the E.W. Scripps Statehouse News Bureau.