The Ohio State House of Representatives has passed legislation critics say will allow public school students to get full marks on science tests if their answers reflect “sincerely held religious beliefs”, even if they're factually wrong. Arguably if the bill passes the Senate and is signed by the governor, all students will need to do is find a religion that endorses every error, and claim it is their own. Granted, this may be more work than actually studying for the exam, but it could also be more fun.
Ohio House Bill 164, known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act, includes some apparently reasonable clauses, such as preventing schools from denying students access to facilities because of their religion. However, controversy has focused on a section that reads: “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 their work.”
According to local television station WKRC, students can't be marked down for an answer that is in line with their religious beliefs, even if it contradicts the best science.
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Timothy Ginter, has disputed this, claiming “ordinary academic standards” means answering in line with the syllabus. However, at least until the law is tested in court, some teachers may be reluctant to penalize unscientific answers in the face of a potential lawsuit arguing they have breached the student's religious liberty.
Every Republican and two Democrats voted for it, while 31 Democrats opposed. The Ohio Senate has an even more overwhelming Republican majority than the House, and the governor is also Republican, so its chances of passage are high.
Gary Daniels of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed the most widespread fear about the law, questioning whether a teacher could mark a student wrong for saying the world is only 10,000 years old. “Under HB 164, the answer is ‘no,’ as this legislation clearly states the instructor 'shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he told Cleveland.com.
Irrespective of the intent, the danger is the chilling effect the law could have on those unsure of how to interpret it. A teacher faced with a paper claiming the Sun goes around the Earth might have trouble marking it, not knowing if the student belonged to a cult that holds this view, or simply hadn't been paying attention in class.
Ginter, who rather appropriately represents Salem, justified the law by describing the pressures students face from drug use, depression, and suicide. It appears to be his sincerely held belief this legislation will help, although it is less clear how.