Home Social Justice Ohio House bill would give students more religious freedom in the classroom

Ohio House bill would give students more religious freedom in the classroom

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An Ohio House committee approved a bill Wednesday put forth by a Republican congressman to increase the amount of religious expression allowed by students in schools, despite objections from the American Civil Liberties Union.

House Bill 425, known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2015, was introduced Jan. 13 by Rep. Bill Hayes, R-Harrison Township. Hayes said this is the second time he has introduced this act. He first introduced it in the 130th general assembly, but the session ended before the bill made it to the floor.

According to the bill, students in schools would be explicitly allowed to express religious views at any time during the school day and in classwork and homework.

“I filed the bill to get some clarity in Ohio,” Hayes said. He added that he believes certain people are afraid to permit religious expression in schools for fear they might violate the establishment clause in the Constitution.

Hayes said half of the act resembles the 1984 Equal Access Act passed during the Reagan presidency. This portion of the law states that schools must allow faith-based organizations to exist at schools and meet at the same times as secular organizations. The other half expands upon the religious liberties of students.

“It simply says students may express their closely held religious beliefs in their homework, in their class discussions, and in their discussions among one another,” Hayes said. “There is not a federal statute for that, but there are several federal cases that have been decided to indicate that that is pretty settled law.”

Hayes acknowledges that cases could be resolved in federal district court. However, he says an Ohio statute would allow the cases to be resolved in a local common pleas court, which would be beneficial for Ohioans who do not live near the federal district court.

“In short, House Bill 425 does essentially two things — one, it repeats protections for matters already well-protected and two, it unwisely expands religious expression in ways that ignore and subvert a public school’s duty to remain neutral with regard to religious expression,” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist of ACLU in testimony before the House Community and Family Advancement Committee.

“The ACLU of Ohio takes no issues with the former,” Daniels said. “But the latter is filled with numerous consequences this committee would be ill-advised to approve. We urge the committee to reject House Bill 425 as it confuses, rather than clarifies, student religious liberties.”  

Largely, Daniels worries about the language of certain portions of the bill.

“Let’s say a student submits a paper claiming humans walked the Earth with dinosaurs or our entire universe is a mere 10,000 years old because their faith instructs them such things are true,” Daniels argues. “Does a biology or earth sciences instructor have the authority to grade their work accordingly? Or would that penalization be forbidden by HB 425? In this instance, the unhelpful phrase ‘using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance’ can be bent and twisted countless ways. Undoubtedly, there are those who will read this section to give religious expression maximum protection at the expense of academic expectations and rigor.”

Hayes does not agree with the concerns of his opponents.

“(The bill) does not do anything to any particular religion, and that’s what the establishment clause is about — preferencing any particular religion,” Hayes said. “This allows all people of all faiths to state their views on a subject. It does not establish anything, it is actually just permitting free speech.”

Regardless of the concerns of HB 425’s opponents, the House committee approved the bill, and for a second time it awaits discussion on the House floor.

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