The state of Ohio faces no shortage of pressing challenges.
Gun safety. School funding. Health care. Energy policy. Pollution. Taxes. Voting rights.
Which is why we are perplexed by some of the issues on which the Ohio General Assembly has instead decided to focus even a portion of its attention.
Consider House Bill 164, the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019,” which passed 61-31 in the House and is under consideration in the Senate.
The bill would do three main things, and each is problematic.
It would give student religious groups the same access to school facilities for meetings and events as secular groups.
Who could have a problem with that? Well, as long as each group is treated equally no one should. But with more than 300 religions and denominations — including paganism, Wicca and Satanism — in the United States, it’s not difficult to see controversy arising if certain religious groups try to meet at the local high school.
It would lift bans that limit student expression of religion to lunch or non-instructional periods.
Again, that seems like a simple matter of free speech, which everyone can agree should be protected … and, in fact, much of it already is.
According to findlaw.com, “Students can typically pray in school as long as they are not disruptive when praying and it does not interfere with classroom instruction or other educational activities. This includes other areas besides the classroom like the cafeteria, locker room, and hallways.”
The concern, however, is the bill goes beyond protecting free speech and could cross over into enabling outright religious promotion.
On May 18, in testimony to the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee, Gary Daniels of the American Civil Liberties Union warned the bill “gives religious speech more protection than secular speech … (which) can and ultimately will result in the proselytization and unwanted coercion of students of different religious beliefs and those with none.”
It would abolish any restrictions on students from engaging in religious expression in completion of homework, artwork or other assignments.
Again, a student including a religious theme in artwork seems harmless, but many see the bill as a Trojan horse for sneaking religion into science classrooms. Daniels of the ACLU raised the example of a student claiming in a biology homework assignment that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Would she receive a lesser grade? No, he said, because HB 164 would not allow it.
Despite what appears to be a Pandora’s box of potential issues, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Ginter, R-Salem, stood by it. The “bill is not an expansion but a clarification (of) what students can and cannot do in religious expression,” he said.
Considering the needless confusion, it’s already created, and that which it surely would if it became law, we say it’s time for the General Assembly to flunk HB 164 and move on to more urgent matters.