Yesterday, the Ohio State House passed a bill — HB 164, the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” — that could allow high school students to get credit for saying something as untrue and idiotic as “The Earth is 6,000 years old” on their homework assignments.
More broadly, it prohibits teachers from punishing students for expressing their religious beliefs in assignments. That sounds sensible on the surface, but because there are no limits, anything goes. Or so it seems.
The relevant portion of the law is this:
[No district] 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.
That last bit is what’s worrying the church/state separation crowd:
ACLU of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.
On the other hand, Daniels said that if a student submitted biology homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old, as some creationists believe, the teacher cannot dock points.
“Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said.
The bill’s Republican sponsor says that’s not true, and that an assignment on evolution can indeed punish students who don’t show proper understanding of it, but that’s not what the bill says.
When a similar bill came up in Washington earlier this year, American Atheists called it “vague, overly broad, and ripe for abuse.” Those words seem to apply here as well.
Other aspects of the bill seem unnecessary, like parts that explicitly say students can start religious clubs at school. They can already do that. So why put it in writing other than trying to win over right-wing voters too ignorant to understand what’s already in the law?
The Ohio House passed the bill 61-31, with only two Democrats voting in favor of it and no Republicans voting against it.
There’s no reason for the State Senate to go along with this. But that chamber, too, is overrun by Republicans. Since you can’t count on them to do the sensible thing, odds are this bill will get signed into law by the Republican governor and create a host of problems for educators unsure of what the new bill allows and prohibits.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)