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Bill prohibits restriction of religious apparel

The act passed the House Education Committee in the spring

Photo by Michael Kelly Students work in a science class at Marietta High School. A bill being considered by the Ohio Legislative Assembly would clarify the religious rights of students, but critics are concerned it might interfere with the ability of school districts to set instructional standards.

A piece of legislation now being considered by the Ohio Senate has provoked opposition among civil rights authorities concerned that it has the potential to interfere with classroom instruction.

Supporters of the bill – House Bill 164, the “Student Religious Liberties Act” – argue that it simply clarifies the rights of students to be free from religious discrimination in schools.

The act passed the House Education Committee in the spring and went to a vote in the full House Nov. 13, where it passed 61-31, with all Republican members and two Democrats in favor, all the remaining Democrats opposed, and is now in the Senate.

The relevant text of the act, which actually is an amendment to a larger education bill, prohibits school districts from imposing restrictions on activities involving expression of religion that are more rigid than those imposed on secular activities such as athletics or academically-oriented organizations. It also prohibits districts from restricting student apparel that bears religious messages, and “any other activity of a religious nature.”

The bill also states that no school district “shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression, the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments.” Although that statement has been widely interpreted as an opening for students who hold creationist beliefs to use those notions in their science homework, the act also states, “Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedalogical concerns, and shall not reward or penalize a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.”

Rep. Don Jones, the Republican for House District 95 who represents part of Washington County, is the chairman of the House Education Committee and was vice chairman of the committee when it considered the act in May.

“We listened to a presentation on the act and voted it out of committee,” Jones said this week. “Adam Baer of Citizens for Community Values spoke about it and made a good argument. For example, if a student is assigned a book report and decides to do it on the Book of Job, it can’t be ineligible just because it’s from the Bible. You can’t penalize kids for wearing a shirt that says ‘Jesus saves’ or for participating in events like ‘See you at the pole.’ It just adds a little protection for expressing your beliefs. We’re not trying to turn the world upside down with this.”

Jones said the act is not intended to create tension between teachers and students in classwork.

“The students still have to respect and meet standards, this does not create special exceptions,” he said. “This is absolutely not permission to deviate from the curriculum.”

The act is what is known as model legislation, created by lobbying groups and then submitted to state and federal lawmakers. The Student Religious Liberties Act matches corresponding legislation passed since 2013 by state assemblies across the country, among them Arizona, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Several of those were pushed by Citizens for Community Values state level chapters, all of which are indirectly or directly affiliated with Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian organization founded by James Dobson.

The Ohio Citizens for Community Values has been active since 1983 and has a history of opposing LGBTQ rights legislation.

The Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union testified at the committee hearing for the bill. The ACLU opposed the bill because, its chief lobbyist Gary Daniels said, it would create confusion rather than clarifying anything.

“HB 164 restates core religious liberties and constitutional principles found in and adequately protected via the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Ohio Constitution,” he told the committee. “Adding a third layer via HB 164 is unnecessary and will confuse instead of provide greater clarity, the intention of this bill.”

Students, he said, already have the rights specified in the bill, such as expressing religious beliefs through what they wear, distributing religious materials and holding events at school. They already, he said, can express religious beliefs in homework, reports, essays and artwork. Some of the potential effects of HB 164 could include, he said, “costly litigation for schools across Ohio, unfortunate distractions for students, teachers and school administrators, and alienation of religious minorities in our classrooms.”

Daniels said a better approach would be through education.

“… increased education regarding the religious liberties of public school students is never a bad thing for all involved,” he said.

Jona Hall is curriculum director for Marietta City Schools, and she said this week as an educator she sees some educational benefits from the act.

“As a teacher, I never tried to put forth my own beliefs because that wasn’t what I was hired to do. I was hired to present information and allow the students to gain their own conclusions,” she said. “I would always tell students that the belief they held was probably similar to the way they were raised and family practices. I also wanted them to know that there were a variety of beliefs in our world, and learning to listen to others was the role we played even when we may not agree with that belief.”

Having a student assert that a religion-based belief is at odds with instructional materials is an opportunity to engage the student, she said.

“Allowing students to defend their beliefs is part of it, too. If a child would say that his or her religious beliefs went against evolution, I would not dismiss their belief. Instead, I would encourage that student to strengthen the argument. Simply saying, ‘Because it is so’ doesn’t hold weight,” she said. “Teaching means helping students learn how to think. … I actually support this new HB.”

To become law, the act needs to pass the Senate and be signed by the governor.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

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