Ohio lawmakers are proposing a new bill that if passed would further protect religious freedoms, including prayer and references to Jesus, in the state's public schools. The bill comes after multiple cases in which public schools were forced to remove Jesus portraits from their campuses or face legal action from atheist groups.
The bill, the Ohio Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was introduced to the state legislature earlier this week by Rep. Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland) and Rep. Tim Derickson (R-Oxford), who argued that the legislation would block further encroachment on religious expression in the state. The bill has over three dozen additional co-sponsors.
"God gave us our rights, not the government, not the neighbor, but God. Government is here to protect those rights," Rep. Patmon said of the bill, according to NBC 4 News. "How many of our students, how many of our schools need prayer? It's a disservice that we do when we don't allow it, when we don't encourage it."
The bill reportedly mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993 that protects First Amendment rights by requiring strict scrutiny in cases that would restrict religious freedom. A court would only be allowed to rule to restrict religious freedom in a case if the ruling supports "compelling government interest," the bill states. So far, 17 states have implemented religious freedom laws mirroring the federal one.
Rep. Derickson said that the new legislation would, for example, allow public school teachers to express their faith by wearing crosses or putting up Nativity displays at schools. "We want to be sure, perfectly sure, that if someone wants to put up an expression of their religion, wants to pray in school, that they will not be denied," Patmon told his fellow lawmakers, according to the Zanesville Times Recorder.
According to The Columbus Dispatch, Patmon was asked if such legislation would have allowed the Jackson City School District to keep up its portrait of Jesus in a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the FFRF. "You would have a better opportunity of keeping Jesus up," he responded.
"A court being asked to remove Jesus in a manger would have to prove it is in government's interest."
In early October, the Jackson City School District reached a settlement with the ACLU and the FFRF regarding a Jesus portrait it had kept in its local high school's "Hall of Fame" since 1947. Following legal action from the groups, the school district ultimately complied to remove the portrait and pay a $95,000 fine. The school had initially refused to remove the portrait, arguing that it held historical significance to the school as it was donated by the Hi-Y Club decades ago as a contribution to the Hall of Fame's historical figures collection.
Additionally, in November the East Muskingum School District agreed to remove a painting of Jesus from one of its local high schools in order to avoid costly litigation.
Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney for Freedom From Religion Foundation, said in a statement that the consequences of the law would be "far-reaching," adding that its "wording is so broad that all aspects of state enforcement, state statutes, and local ordinances would be impacted."
The bill also reportedly has support from the Agudath Israel of America, the Ohio Council of Churches, Citizens for Community Values and the Ohio Catholic Conference.