Over the weekend, I spent some “quality” social media time going around and around with local Evangelical Christians about whether Christian beliefs belonged in public school classrooms. These discussions were fueled by Ohio House Bill 164 — legislation that prohibits teachers from docking points on students’ homework or tests if they answer questions with religious answers, and not facts.
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.
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.
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.
[Rep. Timothy] 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.
[Gary] 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.
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.
Rep. Ginter, the sponsor of HB 164, represents the 5th Ohio House District, which encompasses all of Columbiana County. Ginter has been an ordained Evangelical minister for thirty-nine years. He received his training at Nazarene Bible College and Mt. Vernon Nazarene University. Both institutions are affiliated with the Churches of the Nazarene — a predominantly Evangelical denomination.
It is likely, then, that Rep. Ginter believes in creationism. Ginter stated in a recent interview:
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.
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.
Something tells me Ginter had his fingers crossed behind his back. Does anyone seriously believe that HB164 is anything more than an attempt by Ohio House Republicans to give students and teachers the “freedom” to insert religious magic and nonsense into science discussions?
Suppose a teacher asks on a test this question: how old is the universe? The correct answer is: approximately 13.7 billion years old. An Evangelical student taking this test would be able to, at the very least, give the correct answer AND a wrong answer at the same time: 6,023 years old. What remains unknown is whether, due to his sincerely-held religious beliefs, the student could skip giving the correct answer, answering instead, 6,023 years old, and have it not be counted wrong. Imagine the dilemma faced by high school science teachers, especially in small, rural communities. Taking a stand against interjecting religious ignorance into their classes would surely lead to outrage from offended Evangelicals, and likely lead to their teaching contracts not being renewed. Such teachers, knowing the lay of the land, so to speak, would likely cave to pressure from creationists. Rare is the teacher willing to stand for truth when tied to a pyre and surrounded by outraged Evangelicals with lit torches in their hands.
Ohio state government is currently controlled by right-wing Christian Republicans. One need only watch what this cabal has done on the abortion issue over the past decade to see what Ohio Republicans want to do concerning “religious freedom.” They will not rest until Christian prayers are uttered by teachers at the start of each day or sent school-wide over school intercoms, teachers begin the day with readings from the Christian Bible, abstinence-only sex education is taught in health classes, and young-earth creationism and/or its gussied up sister intelligent design, is taught science classrooms. In other words, Republicans will not rest until they drag Ohio children back good old days of the 1950s.
As I discussed HB 164 on social media, I was troubled by the number of local Christians who had no problem with sectarian religious instruction in public schools. I thought, “surely even Christians can see that this bill is a bad idea.” Nope. Local Evangelicals, in particular, believe public schools need to be reclaimed for God. Sunday after Sunday, these Evangelicals hear evolution, global climate change, sex education, LGBTQ rights, and secularism criticized, condemned, and demonized from church pulpits. Putting into practice the nonsense they hear on Sundays, Evangelicals flood social media with posts and memes promoting religious ignorance. This ignorance is bound to spill over into our public schools.
HB 164, cosponsored by my representative Craig Riedel, was approved by the Ohio House and was sent to the Senate for their consideration. Similar bills have failed several times before. Here’s to hoping that this unnecessary bill follows suit. It’s up to people who truly value freedom of and from religion to insist that our government leaders not breach the wall of separation of church and state. As things stand now in rural northwest Ohio, violations of the Establishment Clause abound. The Freedom From Religion Foundation could set up a local legal office and find enough church-state violations to keep their lawyers busy for years. Signing HB 164 into law will only make matters worse.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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