COLUMBUS — The Ohio House on Wednesday approved legislation that would protect student rights to religious expression in public schools, including prayer, school assignments and artwork, and clothing.
Lawmakers passed House Bill 164 by a vote of 61 to 31 and sent it to the Senate for consideration. Area representatives Jon Cross, Bob Cupp, Jim Hoops, Craig Riedel and Susan Manchester, all Republicans, voted in favor of it.
Sponsor Rep. Tim Ginter, R-Salem, said his “bill is not an expansion but a clarification (of) what students can and cannot do in religious expression.”
He added that the measure was “inclusive legislation that will positively enhance liberties.”
Critics said the U.S. Constitution, and state law, already guarantees religious freedom and school guidelines should be decided by local district officials.
Rep. Phillip Robinson, D-Solon, said the legislation was not needed and would interfere with local control.
“I appreciate the sentiment,” he told colleagues. “But we already protect religious expression.”
The bill, dubbed the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019,” would require schools to:
• Give student religious groups the same access to school facilities for meetings and events as secular groups.
• Lift bans limiting student expression of religion to lunch or non-instructional periods.
• Allow students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent given secular groups.
• Abolish any restrictions on students from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork or other assignments.
Current state law prohibits a school district from promoting an establishment of religion or prohibiting any student from expressing religious beliefs. Ginter’s bill would lift a provision of that law allowing schools to limit such activity to non-instructional time.
The bill would not change current law allowing schools to “provide for a moment of silence each school day for prayer, reflection or meditation upon a moral, philosophical or patriotic theme” with student participation optional.
During committee hearings on the bill, students told of their high school clubs being treated differently than secular groups, such as not being included in the school yearbook and not being given the same access to facilities for meetings.
Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Value said the measure “comes at a critical time in the culture and protects the right of Christian and non-Christian students alike to freely exercise their faith.”