The Ohio House of Representatives approved legislation this week that aims to protect the religious freedom of public school students in the state after the bill was amended with coronavirus-related legislation in the Ohio Senate. House Bill 164 now heads to Gov. Mike DeWine for his signature.
What does it do? The Student Religious Liberties Act states that students “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.” Of course, the First Amendment already protects students’ rights of religious expression in this way. As this helpful BJC resource on Religion in Public Schools explains, students can pray, wear religious clothing, meet on school grounds, and express their faith in school, so long as their expressions are not disruptive.
This legislative effort in Ohio is just one of many similar laws that have been enacted or proposed across the country (see Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Florida, just to name a few) in recent years. One potential problem with trying to codify well-established protections is it can lead to confusion. The Ohio bill, for example, assures students that they can engage in religious expression as a part of their school work, which should be evaluated according to “ordinary academic standards.” Opponents of the law argue the uncertainties in that language could lead to conflict.
The bill passed unanimously in the Ohio Senate and overwhelmingly (87-3) in the House after amendments were added to address education issues related to COVID-19. Initially, 31 Ohio House members voted against the measure.