By Benjamin Morgan, staff writer

Will Ohio students be allowed to answer homework and test questions according to their religious beliefs rather than what they learned in class? That’s the question on the minds of many students, educators, administrators and parents who are wondering what impact a new Ohio House bill would have if passed in the Ohio Senate. 

HB164, officially short titled “Regards student religious expression,” is the third attempt to pass similar legislation that has been repeatedly revoked due to time restrictions in the Ohio State Assembly. On its face, HB164 seeks to extend student religious expression to class time and define both student religious expression and how said expression may or may not be regulated.  

Supporters of the bill believe that it will help preserve student religious liberty and will expand protections for students to demonstrate their religious beliefs. Opponents, however, are wary of the vague wording and lack of explicit definitions contained in HB164. Many are concerned that this lack of definition could cause confusion regarding what the bill really means, who will enforce it, and what the effects on education might be.  

Rep. Timothy Ginter (R – Columbiana), the bill’s sponsor, stated his intent in his sponsorship testimony, namely that “[t]his legislation removes the section of law allowing a school district to limit religious expression to lunch or other non-instructional time.” 

Rep. Diane Grendell (R – Portage), who voted for HB164, stated that it would “give our young people the freedom… to talk to each other and give themselves a chance to communicate to each other for their own religion.” 

When asked whether these rights were not already protected, Rep. Grendell said that “apparently in some schools they weren’t allowed to talk about religion… if they just wanted to meet in the morning and say a prayer together or after school.”

By the time this article was published, the National Prayer Caucus had not returned the reporter’s phone calls regarding such instances.   

Upon reviewing the bill, Bio-Med senior Nadim Awad stated that “I think that (the section regarding how assignments will be judged) is kind of vague… where do we draw the line with that?” He went on to say that despite this lack of clarity, he supports the religious freedom proposed and believes that, especially for people of different cultures, religion is an important part of one’s identity.

Others are wary of issuing a one-size-fits-all policy. One common concern regarding HB164 involves the teaching of certain topics that have been characterized as “controversial,” such as evolution or geologic timelines.

Bio-Med biology teacher Laura Sass said that “(t)here have been several headlines that give the impression this would also include students being able to address scientific concepts and questions with religious reasoning and it be counted as scientifically correct.  However, the more I read into the bill, this did not seem to be the case.”

This concern arises from a section stating that schools shall not “prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments… (g)rades 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.” 

This passage is where most of the debate over this bill stems. When asked about why she voted against HB164, Rep. Randi Clites (D, Portage) said the section concerning academic work was too “murky.”

She went on to say that her worry was that “if you believe differently than what you’re being taught in public school, based off of your religious beliefs, it is not clear in this language that your grade could be reflected based off of what you learned in class.”

Christian Watkins, a Bio-Med junior, agrees, saying that “if it’s what’s being taught in class and that’s the question and that’s what you should have learned, and you answered [according to your personal beliefs], you should be marked wrong.”

He went on to say that during a project his freshman year focused on evolution,“A lot of the religious people were indifferent about it, but they dealt with it.” 

  Stephanie Lammlein, Bio-Med CEO,  said, “It’s good to allow students a space where they can feel safe to express their religious views at school, as long as they’re being mindful that not everyone is going to agree with them, and that’s alright.” But she is also careful to note that   “there could be a big change (to the bill), so if we get too far ahead of it, we’ve just spent a lot of time talking about what is now a moot point.”   

Update: Since the original publication of this article, HB 164 has been passed in the Ohio General Assembly and is set to become fully effective as of September 18, 2020.  

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