Public Schools

Ohio’s ‘Student Religious Liberties’ Bill Doesn't Protect Rights — It Violates Them

  Nik Nartowicz

Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives passed HB 164, a bill that is designed to encourage students to pray and proselytize in public schools. AU opposes this bill because parents should feel comfortable sending their children to public schools and not fear that they will be preached to or forced to pray according to someone else’s faith tradition. It’s a simple concept that is fundamental to religious freedom.

HB 164 is a so-called “student religious liberties” bill, which would authorize religious expression that goes well beyond what is permissible under the Constitution. Bills like HB 164 are unnecessary and actually add more confusion than clarity.

Because current law already protects the rights of students engaging in religious expression, these bills only serve to promote religion in public schools. Public school students may engage in truly voluntary prayer, read the Bible in a non-disruptive way and form religious clubs that meet after school – but it has to be their choice. They can also talk to fellow students about religion, so long as it isn’t harassing. But public schools may not pressure students to engage in prayer or other religious activities. Parents and students should make their own decisions about religion.

Bill sponsor Rep. Timothy Ginter (R-Salem) claims that HB 164 is about clarifying the rights of students to express their religious beliefs in public school. But instead of clarifying the law, the bill adds more confusion. HB 164 is misleading because it doesn’t include necessary constitutional limitations on proselytization in classrooms or at school events. Student religious expression cannot be coercive or disrupt class time, and students may not utilize the classroom to proselytize their fellow students.

The bill, however, says that religious expression would have to be treated the same as nonreligious expression. But there is a constitutionally significant difference between one student making a persuasive speech about global climate change and another student making a speech stating that all students must accept Jesus Christ in order to achieve salvation. Yet, the bill would treat both situations the same. HB 164 would also mean that a student could proselytize at every assembly, lead a prayer during every graduation ceremony or introduce varsity football games with a prayer – situations where other students are a captive audience that would be coerced to participate in religious exercise.

There is also confusion about how the bill will affect student assignments. The bill says that teachers “shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.” Both the ACLU of Ohio and Ohio House Democrats have pointed out that this provision would allow students to turn in science homework with biblical answers – so a student could turn in biology homework that says the earth is 10,000 years old. Ginter disagrees with that interpretation and points to the portion of the bill that says grades “shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance.” Ginter argues that the bill does not allow students to “ignore the class material.”

If lawmakers and policy experts can’t agree on what the bill means, you can be sure that public school teachers, principals and other school employees will be confused by what is and isn’t allowed. If a confused teacher allows students to violate the law, families whose religious freedom has been violated will likely have no choice but to challenge the schools in court. Such litigation can be costly to school districts and taxpayers.

Americans United supports students’ right to engage in student-initiated and student-led, voluntary prayer – but we must ensure that it doesn’t infringe on the rights of other students. Because Ohio students practice a variety of religions and faiths, and those with different or no religious beliefs shouldn’t feel forced to pray, pressured to adopt religious beliefs, or encouraged to engage in religious activities – in violation of their religious freedom. The Ohio Senate should do what it has the last several sessions and reject this bill.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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