Ohio passes law expanding students' religious liberty in public schools      

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Ohio has enacted legislation aimed at expanding religious freedom rights for students in public schools, including the allowance of religious content in school assignments.

Last Friday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed House Bill 164, also known as the Student Religious Liberties Act, which passed the House in a vote of 90-3 and unanimously in the Senate.

Among its provisions, the new law says that schools must treat religious student clubs as they do secular clubs and cannot prohibit religious content from being included in school assignments.

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“A student enrolled in a public school may engage in religious expression before, during, and after school hours in the same manner and to the same extent that a student is permitted to engage in secular activities or expression before, during, and after school hours,” reads the legislation in part.

“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.”

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Matt Sharp, whose law firm often handles religious liberty cases, celebrated the passage of the new law.

“Ohio’s Student Religious Liberties Act protects students’ right to express their religious beliefs and ensures that schools can’t punish or give students a poor grade simply because they choose to express a religious viewpoint when completing a class assignment,” stated Sharp.

“Ohio’s Student Religious Liberties Act reinforces that students don’t give up their First Amendment rights when they step through the doors of a school, and that’s a win for everyone.”

The bill was not without its critics, as the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern over the implementation of the proposal and questioned its efficacy.

In testimony given earlier this month before the Ohio Senate Education Committee, ACLU of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels argued that the bill was “unnecessary.”  

“Indeed, students have the fundamental right to pray and discuss their religious beliefs with fellow students as long as they are not disruptive. They can already express their religious beliefs in homework, reports, essays, and artwork, so long as those beliefs are germane to the assignment and coursework,” stated Daniels.

“They may distribute religious literature to fellow students, subject to typical time, place, and manner restrictions imposed on all such speech. They can participate in religious events such as ‘See You at the Pole’ before and after the school day, on school property.”   

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