COLUMBUS — A student who claims the Earth is only 10,000 years old in a science class would not be penalized if a bill called the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2016” becomes law.
Rep. Bill Hayes, R-Granville, said the bill would protect religious expression in public schools and ensure religious groups are treated the same way as secular student groups.
Current law permits a school district to limit religious expression to lunch period or other non-instructional time periods when students are free to associate. The bill would remove that provision and allow a student to engage in religious expression "before, during, and after school hours … to the same extent that a student is permitted to engage in secular activities.”
“We’re just asking for free and open discussion so kids can express their views.” Hayes said. “This is not in favor of any religion. It’s actually kind of crazy we have to do it, because it’s a constitutional right to express yourself and what you believe.”
The bill would also require public schools to provide student-led religious groups the same access to facilities as the chess club or student council.
Religious expression, under the bill’s definition, includes: prayers, religious gatherings, distribution of material of a religious nature and wearing symbolic clothing.
If the bill becomes law, Hayes said students who feel that their religious rights have been violated would be able to address the issue through a local court instead of a federal one.
The bill is unnecessary because it repeats protections that are already guaranteed under the First Amendment, said Gary Daniels, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
Daniels added that certain parts of the bill – such as the section that prohibits a school from penalizing or rewarding a student’s religious expression when completing homework or other assignments – were broad and undefined.
“Let’s say a student submits a paper claiming humans walked the Earth with dinosaurs…because their faith instructs them such things are true, does a biology or earth sciences instructor have the authority to grade their work accordingly?” Daniels said. “It’s pretty clear (under the bill) that the authority of a school or teacher to grade a student accordingly in these situations is extremely limited.”
Daniels was the only one who testified against the bill while nine other people supported it.
Kelly Haight, a 2015 graduate of Hilliard Davidson High School, testified about how her student-led religious group, Faith, struggled to become an official club of the school. The group was also not allowed to use the school auditorium for a baccalaureate because of the “religious nature of the event.”
“I was told by school officials that Faith was being treated differently because of its religious nature,” Haight said.
The group resorted to hiring legal counsel and was granted access to the auditorium as well as a spot in the student yearbook in this current school year.
“I think it wasn’t clear to them what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed,” Haight said. “Not all public school students will have the same opportunity to retain counsel and may be intimidated about raising these issues with school officials.”
But Daniels said cases like Haight’s were uncommon in Ohio.
“I think there’s occasional confusion, and I think that’s completely natural,” Daniels said. “I think schools very much have this handled in a certain respect.”
The House Community and Family Advancement committee passed HB 425 on Wednesday.
Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.