COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that failed to get over the finish line during the last General Assembly.
The bill, now known as the Student Religious Freedom Act of 2019, does a number of things. According to the bill’s Legislative Services Commission analysis it:
- Requires public schools to give students who wish to meet for the purpose of religious expression the same access to school facilities given to secular student groups, without regard to the content of the expression.
- Removes a current provision that permits a school district to limit the exercise or expression of religion to lunch periods or other noninstructional time periods.
- Authorizes students enrolled in public schools to engage in religious expression before, during, and after school hours in the same manner and to the same extent that a student may engage in secular activities or expression before, during, and after school hours.
- Prohibits public schools from restricting a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other assignments.
- Prohibits public schools from rewarding or penalizing a student based on the religious content of the student’s homework, artwork, or other assignments.
According to the bill’s sponsor Republican State Representative Timothy Ginter, “The intention of this bill is to put a parameter and to remove ambiguity and add clarity to those rights that are already in place, through the Ohio Constitution and the US Constitution.”
But it is ambiguity and a lack of clarity that have caused the controversy with the bill, specifically with the last bullet point as that is what some people are upset about.
The exact text of the bill that deals with that bullet point reads:
“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.”
Opponents of the bill read that and say, the student can just answer however they wish, say it’s based on their religious beliefs, and still get full credit for completing the assignment or answering the question on a test because it would be prohibited to penalize them for not supplying an answer the teacher was testing for.
The bill’s sponsor says, that is a misunderstanding of the sentence.
According to Ginter, the first part of the sentence clearly states that grades and scores will still be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance; in other words, he says, “[Students] may totally disagree with what the teacher’s teaching, but never the less they’re obligated to answer the questions accurately.” Ginter says, accurately is based on what was taught by the teacher in class.
For example if the subject was evolution, Ginter says, students who’s religious beliefs do not reflect the material covered in the class will still have to answer the question correctly based on what was taught. They could also add to that answer that they disagree with what was taught based on their religious beliefs and explain why.
Ginter says, as long as the answer contains the correct information, based on what was taught, they would not be punished for expressing their belief in the rest of the answer.
Likewise the bill prohibits them from being rewarded, with extra credit for example, for expressing their religious belief.
A big reason for the controversy is because of how the sentence is written. It uses broad undefined terms in a blanket statement which opens the legislation up to interpretation, according to opponents of the bill.
Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes says, that vague language will put teachers in a difficult position.
“Teachers did not sign up to debate the first amendment in their classroom subject matters,” said Sykes.
As the bill is written, the teacher would first have to determine if the content of the work is based on religious beliefs in order not to penalize it; and teachers may have no training in that area.
All of the attention the bill has received has been eye-opening for Ginter and others at the Statehouse.
“We did not, and I did not, have any anticipation that it would this type of reaction, literally all across the nation,” said Ginter. “I think at this point there is a great amount of knee-jerk reaction to this bill.”
His perspective may not be far off, at least as far as the bill’s future at the Statehouse is concerned, as it is not something Democrats oppose completely.
“Quite frankly, we do believe students should have opportunities to express their faith and their religion even when they are in school,” said Sykes.
However, they do want to see changes made to the bill to further clarify that specific section of the bill that has become so controversial.
“It would be helpful if the bill is over in the Senate that they spend a little bit more time fine tuning that so that we have a better understanding about what that actually does mean, so we don’t continue to fight back and forth about semantics,” said Sykes. “That change would make a huge difference in terms of engaging more members and probably getting more support.”
However, they are the same changes they have been asking for since last General Assembly when the bill was introduced and failed to pass in both chambers.
Now it will be up to Ohio’s Republican State Senators to determine if the sentence needs further refinement or if they will pass it out as written.