(Update: Interview with bill sponsor, more detail)

Did lawmakers in Ohio’s House pass legislation that says it’s okay for students to be wrong in science class as long as their reasoning is based on religious beliefs?

That’s what critics in the state are saying is allowed in the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” (see text below), which passed this week 61 to 31 in the Republican-dominated legislative chamber and will move on to the GOP-controlled Senate.

But the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Timothy Ginter (R), says that’s not so. So does Charles C. Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, which is the education and outreach partner of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum in Washington D.C.

The legislation, HB 164, would do the following if it became law, according to an analysis from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, a bipartisan agency that provides the Ohio General Assembly with budget and fiscal analysis:

  • Allow students to engage in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork or other assignments
  • Prohibit public schools from rewarding or penalizing a student based on the religious content of a student’s homework, artwork or other assignments

This is the specific language in HB 164:

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 Sec. 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.

Ginter was quoted by WKRC as saying: “Under House Bill 164, a Christian or Jewish student would not be able to say my religious texts teach me that the world is 6,000 years old, so I don’t have to answer this question. They’re still going to be tested in the class and they cannot ignore the class material."

But Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the measure does in fact allow students to answer homework questions and other assignments incorrectly, based on religious doctrine rather than science — and not be marked wrong. Cleveland.com quoted him as saying: “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.' ”

It also quoted Amber Epling, spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, as saying that based on the analysis from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, she believes students can be scientifically incorrect based on religion and not be penalized.

Numerous states in recent years have considered scores of anti-science bills — usually aimed at affecting classroom discussion on evolution and climate change. Those measures typically take one of two approaches, according to the nonprofit National Center for Science Education, which seeks to inform the public on scientific and educational aspects of controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution and climate change. The first approach includes measures that aim to repeal state science standards or challenge science textbooks. The other includes legislative attempts to legitimize the practice of teachers presenting unscientific criticism of scientific principles.

Ginter’s comment about a 6,000-year-old Earth refers to a belief of young Earth creationists that the world was created 6,000 years ago and that the scientific theory of evolution, the animating principle of modern biology, is invalid.

The Ohio legislation:

  • Requires districts to ensure religious groups have the same access to facilities as do secular groups
  • Bars school districts from limiting students’ religious expression to noninstructional times
  • Allows districts to provide a moment of silence each school day for prayer, reflection or meditation but bars them from requiring that students or employees participate

Washington Post reporter Marisa Iati contributed this:

Ginter said in a statement that he sponsored the bill because he believes protecting students’ rights to express their faith encourages hope in the face of violence in schools and rising rates of drug abuse and suicide.

“This bill is not an expansion, but rather a clarification, of those liberties already afforded our students in the Constitution and seeks to remove ambiguity for our schools who are often confused as to what students can and cannot do in regard to religious expression, by providing a pathway they can follow that keeps them within constitutional guidelines,” Ginter said.

Daniels, who spoke against the bill to lawmakers, told The Washington Post that he was concerned the legislation would tie teachers’ hands if students ignored an assignment’s instructions and instead stated their religious beliefs. Given the bill’s vague language, Daniels said many teachers would let students’ actions slide.

“In a small town, in a small county, where these issues tend to attract more attention, how much is a teacher going to push back on a student’s religious beliefs and create a controversy in a classroom?” Daniels said.

Haynes, of the Religious Freedom Center, said he disagreed with interpretations of the bill that contend it would make allowances for students who deny scientific principles that conflict with their religion. He said students still would have to know the content of their classes, but they could express their religious views about what they had learned.

“They’re not let off the hook from learning what is being taught,” Haynes said. “They don’t have to believe it, they don’t have to accept it, but they have to know it.”

In response to a question about the age of the Earth, for example, Haynes said a student would have to answer the question according to the evolutionary theory taught in class. The student could, however, add that he holds a different view because of his religion. The teacher could not penalize the student for that answer, Haynes said.

Federal laws and guidelines already protect students’ religious expression in schools, Haynes said, but some conservative Christians have expressed concern that not all schools follow those rules. State bills like the one in Ohio aim to reinforce existing federal policy, Haynes said.

Here’s the text of Ohio’s HB 164: