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Ohio House passes bill to protect public school students’ religious rights

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The Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would clarify the extent of religious freedoms for public school students across the state. 

The bill, if passed by the Ohio Senate and approved by Gov. Mike DeWine, would primarily prohibit public schools from denying a student the right to engage in religious expression when completing homework, artwork or other written and oral assignments. Instead, students would be graded based on the “substance and relevance” of their work, according to the bill.

House Bill 164, also titled the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019, passed 61-31 in the Republican-dominated chamber. It was co-sponsored by every Republican member of the body. The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Tim Ginter (R-Columbiana).

“HB 164 is meant to be a tool for schools and will place into Ohio law a clarification of those liberties already afforded to our students in the Constitution,” according to a document provided by a member of Ginter’s staff.

An analysis from the Ohio Legislative Commission — a nonpartisan state agency that helps craft legislation — said current state law prohibits school districts from adopting any policy or rule respecting or promoting an establishment of religion. It also prohibits students from exercising or expressing religious beliefs during the school day.

“(The bill) seeks to remove ambiguity for our schools as to what students can and cannot do in regard to religious expression,” the document from Ginter’s office said.

It would also lift a rule that currently prohibits students from exercising religious expression during lunch periods or other non-instructional time throughout the school day.

Additionally, the bill would allow students who wish to meet for the purpose of religious expression the same access to school facilities given to secular student groups.

The legislation, however, is not intended to be a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for students who wish to express religion in class assignments, Ginter said.

If, for example, a class is tested on Darwin’s theory of evolution, all students — regardless of religious beliefs — must demonstrate secular understanding of the theory, according to the document provided by Ginter’s staff.

Under HB 164, a student would 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,’” the document reads.

Rep. Phillip Robinson (D-Solon) expressed a different sentiment, saying the bill could lead to confusion of students’ religious liberties in the classroom.

“This law is just redundant in the aspect that we already have state and federal laws associated with this. Our federal constitutions protect these rights, and, if anything, it’s just going to create more confusion,” said Dakota Bidgood, a legislative aide to Robinson.

The bill has not yet been assigned to a Senate committee.

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