New Ohio law would let students invoke their religion to give wrong answers

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The Ohio House of Representatives just passed a measure that allows students to give the wrong answers in school as long as religion is involved.

Ohio's House of Representatives just passed a bill that would allow students to give the wrong answers on assignments if their religious beliefs conflict with the answers.

The "Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act" overwhelmingly passed the House on Wednesday and now heads to the state Senate. Every Republican in the chamber voted for it, with nearly every Democrat voting against. In the Senate, Republicans hold 24 of the chamber's 33 seats, giving the bill a good chance to pass there and become law.

And what a law it is. The bill's language says that a student cannot be prohibited from "engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments." Instead of being graded on the correct answers, students will be graded using standards of "substance and relevance," and a teacher "shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student's work."

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In other words, a student could "engag[e] in religious expression" by turning in a science paper filled with anti-science creationist dogma and not be penalized. They could write that fossils aren't real and were put there by God instead of being the product of the passage of time.

The bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Timothy Ginter, defended the bill by saying, "We live in a day when our young people are experiencing stress and danger and challenges we never experienced growing up," but did not explain how being allowed to ignore the scientific underpinnings of evolution and instead assert God created the Earth in seven days would alleviate stress and danger.

While it seems likely that the conservatives who sponsored the bill were thinking of things like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and evolution when they wrote it, the bill raises new questions. What if a student who asserts their sincerely held religious beliefs compel them to ignore the basic rules of physics or the structure of the English language? The Supreme Court has long held that an inquiry into the truth or falsity of religious beliefs is problematic and has struggled with how to evaluate whether someone's religious beliefs are sincere. Under this law, it might be tough for the school to deal with the scofflaw who hates math.

In the end, this is a solution in search of a problem. The free expression of religion is already protected in Ohio, as it is in every other state and at the federal level.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.