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Religious freedom bill would make wrong answers acceptable in Ohio schools, critics say

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Posted at 5:41 PM, Nov 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-15 18:57:40-05

CLEVELAND — Ohio lawmakers are wading into a controversial proposition: step on the separation of church and state or ensure students in Ohio have more opportunities to express themselves?

It's a debate currently underway in Columbus, as the Ohio House passes the Student Religious Liberties act, which is now on its way to the Senate.

The lawmaker behind the bill is trying to set the record straight about what the proposed law would mean for religion in public schools.

In a statement, Representative Timothy Ginter told News 5 that those in clear opposition are creating confusion by circulating what he calls urban myths.

Under House Bill 164, public schools in Ohio would be required to give students who want to meet for religious expression the same access as secular groups.

"For some reason, under current Ohio law, schools are allowed to limit religious activities to specific periods of the day when other activities, like glee club for example, aren't so limited," said Rob Glickman.

Glickman, an education and student attorney, said removing that restriction makes sense.

However, he, along with House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes have concerns about other changes they call problematic.

"If a student wants to turn in a paper that goes against fact, against anything we know to be true in science and they base it on their religion, that student can't be penalized for that incorrect answer," said Sykes.

Glickman believes the proposed law, as written right now, would force teachers to re-evaluate their coursework.

"For example, if the assignment is, 'How old is the world?' The assignment now has to be, 'How old is the world under evolutionary theory, as opposed to creationism theory,'" said Glickman.

State Rep. Timothy Ginter says that interpretation is incorrect.

He authored House Bill 164 which he says ensures a student cannot be penalized merely for choosing to write about a religious text.

While critics call the whole thing redundant, Ginter explains why he thinks it's an important bill to pass.

"It really just codifies protections that already exist for students under both the federal and state constitution," said Ginter.

Ginter stresses the legislation is needed and addresses a real need in our schools by creating a clear pathway for districts to follow constitutional guidelines.

"We do have a separation of church and state for a reason; this country was founded on the fact that people didn't want to be forced into a certain religion, and we're opening Pandora's box," said Sykes.

Just because students attend a public school does not mean they surrender their religious freedoms, according to Ginter. He believes House Bill 164 provides that clarity.

"I really hope that people start to take notice about what is happening at the Statehouse, and it's not just 164, there are many more bills in which we are seeing a degradation of science and facts, and we really need to get a hold on that and stop doing that," said Sykes.

The ACLU of Ohio is weighing in on the debate.

In a statement to News 5, their chief lobbyist says protecting the religious rights of students is a laudable goal, but this legislation is not only unnecessary, it will lead to confusion and constitutional violations in Ohio's public schools.

News 5 reached out multiple times requesting an interview with Representative Ginter but we were told he did not have time.

Lawmakers tried pushing it through in the last legislative session. Like this go-around, it passed the House but was shot down in the Senate. That's where the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act currently sits.

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