New law will allow religious public school students in Ohio to give scientifically incorrect answers

The Student Religious Liberties Act is the latest in a long line of accommodations for religion in US public school curricula.

A bill that passed the Ohio House of Representatives this week would force public schools to accept scientifically incorrect answers if those answers align with the student’s religion.

In addition to allowing religious expression-based work, the ‘Student Religious Liberties Act’

  • Requires public schools to give students who belong to religious groups the same access to facilities as secular groups (eg. drama club, choir.)

  • Removes a provision that allows school districts to limit religious expression to outside the classroom.

  • Allows students to engage in religious expression before, during and after school hours to the same extent as a student in secular activities.

On Wednesday, the bill passed by a vote of 61-3, with every Republican representative voting in favour.

The bill will now pass into the state Senate, which is majority-held by Republicans.

Dr David Smith, senior lecturer at University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre, calls the bill “unusual”, even for a conservative state like Ohio.

“There have been quite a few other states that have passed Student Religious Liberties Acts including Mississippi and Arizona,” Dr Smith told The Feed.

“But this is the first one I’ve seen that goes into the realm of not penalising students for the religious content of their work.”

In 2013, the Mississippi Senate passed a Student Religious Liberties Act that prohibited teachers from disciplining students who expressed anti-LGBTQI+ views if those views aligned with their religion.

Unsurprisingly, the Ohio bill has attracted a number of critics.

“Critics have said that this law will allow students to say that the world was created 10,000 years ago and not be penalised for it,” Dr Smith says.

“The sponsors of the law are saying something a little different. They’re saying it’s not a free pass to say whatever you want, it still has to be consistent with academic standards.”

Republican sponsor of the Ohio bill, Timothy Ginter said that allowing religious expression would be positive because, “Young people are experiencing stress and danger and challenges we never experienced growing up.”

Democrats opposed to the bill have labeled it “redundant”.

“We already have religious freedom protected at the federal and state level," said Solon Democrat Phillip Robinson.

While most public schools in the US don’t teach intelligent design or creationism, there are exceptions like Louisiana, where the Science Education Act allows for teaching materials that are critical of evolution.

Dr Smith sees the Ohio bill as “A lawsuit waiting to happen.”

The text of the law is not entirely clear. There will be some case that happens very early on that will go through the courts and establish what this law actually means,” he says.

However, if the Ohio bill passes the Senate, Dr Smith expects a lot of copycat bills in other states.

“While this law is unusual, the politics that have produced the law is not unusual,” Dr Smith said.

“What we’ve seen in the US over the last couple decades is that conservative legislation like this isn’t just formulated by concerned lawmakers at a state level; it’s drafted up at national conferences by organisations like the American Legislative Exchange Council.”

In Australia, the School Education Act 1999 prohibits curriculum or teachers promoting any specific religion.

The theory of evolution is a mandatory part of the national curriculum for year nine and 10 science students. 

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