New Ohio Law Lets Students Give Wrong Answers on Tests for Religious Reasons

The Ohio state House of Representatives has passed the Student Religious Liberties Act, which prevents teachers from penalizing students for giving incorrect answers on tests or other schoolwork if those facts would conflict with their religious beliefs.

The relevant section reads "No school district board of education (...) 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."

In practice, this means that the extremely broadly-defined "religious expression" can be present in the content of an essay, test or other assignment and the teacher cannot grade down or otherwise correct the student for it.

WKRC reported that after passing in the state's House on Wednesday, the bill now moves on to the Republican-controlled state Senate for a vote.

Student taking test
A student taking a test Sengchoy / Getty Images

In addition to the academic provision, the bill also mandates that schools provide the same facilities and other resources to religious groups as they do to secular groups, and prohibits schools from restricting religious activities to lunch and other breaks.

Many House Democrats criticized the measure, claiming it was redundant with other laws that protect religious freedom and expression.

Representative Catherine Ingram told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that schools may already "teach about religion, explain the tenets about various faiths, discuss the role of religion in history, literature, science—and not for the purpose of anti-science—but in science, and other endeavors and the like."

The bill's sponsor, Republican representative and ordained minister Timothy Ginter, has a history of attempting to write his religious beliefs into legislation.

In September, he sponsored a bill that would have declared pornography a public health hazard with "statewide and national public health impacts leading to a broad spectrum of individual and societal harms."

Earlier in November he also sponsored a bill that would allow taxpayers to deduct contributions made to "pregnancy resource centers," which have been described by the American Medical Association as "unethical" facilities that "seek to intercept women with unintended pregnancies who might be considering abortion." Such centers are commonly church-run and exempt from medical oversight or licensing.

The struggle for religious accommodation in schools has been a turbulent one. In Alabama, science textbooks containing information about evolution are required to have a sticker inside the cover that tells students that the generally accepted theory of evolution is "controversial."

Proponents of creationism, the Biblical theory that a supernatural figure created the Earth and all life on it, have adopted the term "intelligent design" to teach in schools. Several states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, have seen lawsuits in which proponents attempted to have that theory included in science curricula.