Ohio passes ambiguous “Student Religious Liberties Act”

June 19, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Last November, when I was on a ship off Antarctica, I posted about a bill in the Ohio Legislature, now called the “Student Religious Liberties Act,” that, critics fear, would expand the role of religion in the public schools. At that time the bill had passed the Ohio House over the objections of Democrats.  Now, according to the news site Cleveland.com, the bill has passed the Ohio Senate unanimously, by a vote of 32-0, and is on the way to the governor for his signature.


While my earlier post singled out four areas of concern, the one that most disturbed me was this one, which appears to have been adopted without any changes:

You don’t have to parse this closely to see the ambiguity. You are not to be penalized or rewarded by engaging in religious expression on assignments, but yet you’re supposed to be graded using “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” How is that going to work.

The proponents of the bill, below, say that nothing will change, with one person using as an example that if someone draws a picture of Jesus in an art class, “They are not to be penalized on the religious content but on their skill as a painter.” The problem is, of course, that not all classes are art classes! (See below.)

The newspaper article at the top notes that ten other states have adopted similar legislation, and it’s worrisome that religious organizations were the ones lobbying for the bill.

My concerns remain the same as they were seven months ago, and so I’ll just repeat what I said then. My words are indented, and quotes are further indented:

The fourth bit—the subject of this post and the Ohio bill—is especially worrisome, because it allows students to give wrong answers if those wrong answers comport with their faith. That, too, is inimical to the public welfare, and to the duty of public education, in the service of religion. While the bill is said to be more “nuanced” than that, I don’t know how, and even the bill’s supporters aren’t sure.

Here’s what that bit says in the bill:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code 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.

You can see the ambiguity here. On the one hand the code permits students to use religious expression to do homework or answer test questions, and to do so without penalty (or reward); on the other hand it says that assignments will be graded “using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” That gives no guidelines about what to do when a student says that the Bible says that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that all animals and plants were created within a day or two because that’s what Genesis says. This is a bill that’s simply begging for a lawsuit.

. . .Well, there’s plenty of chance for religious self-expression after school or in church. And there’s no excuse for impeding students’ education by giving them credit for religious answers that are wrong—or failing to tell them that they’re wrong, even if you don’t penalize them. If you want religious answers to be acceptable, have your kids home-schooled—or send them to religious schools.

But would the bill allow students to get credit for wrong answers that buttress their faith? It’s not clear, for that might depend on the results of later First-Amendment lawsuits. The Cleveland.com website says this:

ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.

I think Daniels is a bit off the mark here. Those “restrictions on students’ religious rights” are already prohibited by the First Amendment (first and third points above). So what’s new?

Here’s the ambiguous bit:

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.

Well, that’s confusing! If you can neither penalize nor reward students for arguing that, for example, the Earth is 10,000 years old, what can you do? If you give them credit, you’re rewarding them. If you give them no credit, you’re penalizing them.

Amber Epling, a spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, said that in an analysis of the bill by the legislature’s nonpartisan staff, “they cannot be rewarded or penalized for the religious content in their assignments.”

She believes the bill could result in teachers accepting assignments that fly in the face of science.

But I think it’s more likely that teachers would avoid this whole issue by not asking questions that could lead to religiously-inspired answers. But that means no evolutionary biology at all, and not many biology teachers want to avoid teaching evolution, even in the American South. To deprive students of this wondrous (and true!) theory by catering to students’ faiths would be to do them a profound disservice. After all, is religion so different from other unsubstantiated faiths like Holocaust denialism? Does Scientology and its crazy claims about Xenu and thetans get “respected” too? That way lies madness.

And here’s some more madness. Sponsor Gintis says that the bill’s “nuances” prohibit students from getting credit for wrong but religiously-inspired answers, but then undermines what he said by asserting that Moses was a historical figure and you could get credit for writing about Moses as if he existed.

But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.

“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.

However, if students were assigned a report based on historic figures, they could turn in a paper on a historical figure, such as Moses or Mohammed, Ginter said.

What, exactly, is the extra-Biblical evidence for the historical existence of Moses? It’s exactly as thin as extra-Biblical evidence for the historical evidence for a Jesus figure—i.e., NO evidence.

h/t: Tom

29 thoughts on “Ohio passes ambiguous “Student Religious Liberties Act”

  1. one person using as an example that if someone draws a picture of Jesus in an art class

    I don’t remember having such open-ended assignments. I’m sure I had a few, but they were rare. It was more typically “draw an apple.” Or “read this Shakespeare play and write what it’s about.” Or “solve this math equation.” Or “what does the executive branch of government do?” I’m not sure how religious expression would figure in to any of those.

    I guess science teachers will now be forced to pre-label many of their test questions to specify they want an understanding of the subject, not some student’s belief. “According to the theory of evolution, what is…” “According to radiocarbon dating, how old is…”

  2. It’s all part of the second Civil War that the Confederacy is still waging. They were never seeking secession, their goal was the overthrow of the Union and its replacement with a theocracy that justifies their beliefs. They are still planning a Constitutional Convention that will allow them to rewrite the document.

    But as to how to deal with this law, exam questions will have to be very specific: “According to Darwinian Evolution and the current scientific fossil record, when did mammals first appear?”

  3. The load of crap is the Ohio legislature. Or maybe they are all lawyers looking for more work for lawyers when students begin suing the school for their grades. This is what happens when religion takes over government. Let religion rein and education goes down the drain.

  4. PCC(e) is exactly right about the outcome
    (probably quite deliberate) of legislation like this: teachers, especially in Biology, will just shy away from subjects for which religiously inspired answers can be expected.
    My impression is that, back in the ancient times of the mid-20th century, Biol classes at the secondary level quite often skipped over the history of life—so as to avoid contention. So, in Ohio and elsewhere, it will be: forward to the past.

    1. Oh, you don’t have to go back that far. Witness this NYT article from 2011, referencing a survey published in Science at the time. Only 28 percent of public school biology teachers consistently described the evidence for evolution. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocated creationism, and spent at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

      As the article puts it, that leaves what the authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. There’s no doubt that the cautious middle simply wants to avoid community pressures.

    2. I agree about the likely deterrent effect on would-be evolution teachers. In principle, if the law were enforced fairly, and everyone knew it would be, there would be no problem. A student could write “Birds are classified by scientists as descended from dinosaurs – but the Bible says they were created separately!” and get full credit. And they would need the first part to get credit.

      But in practice, laws are enforced selectively, with biased interpretations.

  5. I read that last sentence as saying that students’ work is to be assessed normally and any religious stuff the student adds is to be ignored. It certainly allows that interpretation and is consistent with the concept of not suppressing religious expression in the classroom. I’m not saying I like it but perhaps it isn’t so bad as far as it goes. Still, it could be regarded as a small plateau on the slippery slope up to full-blown religion in education.

    1. Yes, that’s how I interpreted it.

      Taken with eric’s suggestion (#2 @ 1.15) plus the requirement that ‘grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance’, there might not be a problem if marking schedules reward answers for what is included, but then I’ve never taught science.

  6. Religious people are desperate to keep their children from learning about reality when it conflicts with the ancient mythology they all grew up with. That’s massively stupid, but not unexpected. The parents were raised the same way. If only they could find ways to gradually alter reality over time, by infiltrating the school system with new guidance leading to a ban on science that contradicts myth. Then I could be sure my kids will not be tempted to wander from the path. After all, what could be more important than insuring that my offspring will join me in heaven when I die?

  7. I always find a morbid delight in these bills which use “liberties” and “freedom” in the title.

    How about

    Nutritional liberties and dietary freedom act : a bill for consenting citizens to choose cannibalism.

    Does any other country feature such 18th century wax museum style language in its laws?

    1. Yes, the conservatives who drive these foolish bids for control must feel this is what they get payed for. To make their foolish constituents feel good. Many of them are lawyers who probably know the law would be unconstitutional, but it’s a great signal and very helpful to be seen connected with the law come election day.

  8. This legislation, and others like it around the country, is taken, much of it word for word, from model legislation proposed by a Christian Nationalist group called Project Blitz. Project Blitz is organized by the Congressional Prayer Caucus, the National Legal Foundation and WallBuilders ProFamily Legislators Conference. Other Blitz proposals include proclamations to establish, “Christian heritage week” and a “public policy resolution favoring sexual intercourse only between a married man and woman”.

    The privately run Congressional Prayer Caucus works to “preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer”, according to its website. The Wallbuilders and National Legal Foundation are much the same, if not worse.

  9. Alarming, but to me it is easy to ask questions that require students to answer with science. Some of these may be more advanced than grade school, but you get the idea.

    1. Use a population of green frogs and describe how these frogs can evolve to become brown frogs, according to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

    2. Describe the fossil evidence that is used by paleontologists to argue that humans evolved from apes. In your description be sure to mention the key anatomical traits seen in fossils identified to belong to Ardipithecus ramidus, Austrolipithecus afarensis, and Homo erectus. Tell me how each fossil is less like an ape and more like a human.

    3. Humans must get vitamin C (ascorbic acid) from their diet. What is the genetic evidence that the ancestors of modern humans used to be able to manufacture their own ascorbic acid?

    You see, they can spin all the religious mumbo jumbo they want, but if they don’t also address the scientific consensus surrounding these answers, then I get to flunk them. There is no way out of it.

    1. Makes sense to me. I must point out that your question #1 makes it sound like the green frogs turn brown during their lifetime. Perhaps change it to:

      “Use a population of green frogs and describe how it can evolve to become a population of brown frogs, according to the theory of evolution by natural selection.”

      I’m no teacher or biologist but I know this is something that confuses kids trying to understand evolution. And anti-evolutionists pretend not to understand it in order to confuse people.

    2. I agree. Teachers will need to be careful not to ask lazy open-ended questions that could allow students to spout religious nonsense. I’ve always thought that well-focussed questions with lots of context are best to assess learning. More work but better results.

      1. I am thinking about problems related to age appropriate questions. A student who has done calculus or maybe a “functions” course can do:

        “Calculate the age of the Earth using the following isochron data …”

        But a student with less math can only do:

        “What is the age of the Earth?”

        Yet it seems to me that latter question is appropriate to a grade 7 or 8 geography course or the like …

  10. I don’t see the point of having students trying to evangelize among teachers.

    Or what other purpose would that act have?

    1. It’s a foot in the door so that in the future public schools will be part of Christian Culture.

  11. Everyone knows the best students are the ones who shut their eyes tightest and squinch up their prayer faces hardest.

  12. and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

    What I think they’re saying here is to just pretend that question is like extra credit or something if they answer it with religious context. In that case, you’re not penalizing or rewarding the incorrect answer. At least, as far as I can imagine. I might be wrong.

  13. This latest effort isn’t surprising since many other groups have already demanded that they not be offended or discriminated against (by having to bear more burden than others have to) while in an educational institution, whether it be public school or university.

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