Ohio Bill Would Give Students “Religious Freedom” in Science Class

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Man, is it 2005 because the US president is a criminal, the last movie in a Star Wars trilogy is coming out, the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and US states are passing anti-evolution bills? Mmm, nostalgia!

Seriously, this is giving me major flashbacks to my time as a baby skeptic. Ohio’s House of Representatives has just passed a bill with 100% Republican support that would allow students to answer science questions wrong because of what their religion tells them. Or, does it? Let’s get into it!

The bill is called the “”Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019” so you already know it’s gonna be dumb. Any time a Republican can label something with both “religion” and “liberty” it’s a disaster. It’s the GOP’s chocolate and peanut butter cups. Two great tastes that taste great together, only when you actually unwrap the candy bar you realize that despite the name on the package it’s just made up of like 95% human shit. Because they say “liberty” but what they mean is “Christian dominance.” Because let’s say that a bill says “students can’t be penalized if their work is scientifically wrong as long as the reasoning is because of their religious beliefs,” I think we all know that Timothy Ginter, sponsor of this bill, evangelical minister from Salem, Ohio, isn’t thinking of a child answering “How did the universe come into existence” with “Allahu Akhbar.”

But let’s go back to the quote from the local Ohio news saying that the bill says “students can’t be penalized if their work is scientifically wrong as long as the reasoning is because of their religious beliefs.” Is that true?

Here’s the actual text of the bill that inspired this article:

“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.”

So, it doesn’t outright say that a student can answer every question with “Jesus” and still get an A. In fact, it does say that a teacher cannot penalize OR reward a student based on their “religious content.” This is the sort of thing that always happens when the Republicans try to weasel language into governmental bills that will allow them to get away with the shit they want. If you’re not aware, here’s a brief history of the GOP’s plan when it comes to creationism, abstinence-only education, prayer in school, homophobia, or anything else they want. I will use creationism as the example:

Bill 1: Teach creationism, outlaw the teaching of evolution

When that doesn’t work, they try Bill 2: Teach creationism AND evolution

When that doesn’t work, here comes Bill 3: Highlight the flaws of evolution and include a disclaimer in textbooks

Bill 4: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM! Vague language about allowing students and teachers to express religious thoughts with no punishment.

That’s late-stage evangelicalism, right there. The best they can do is sneak in this general language that gives them wiggle room for a teacher, student, or administrator to push their issues in. That then becomes a wedge, pointed directly into the little butthole they just made in the wall separating church and state. If it works, they can push the wedge in further and further until they are able to get in Bill 3, then Bill 2, and eventually Bill 1.

So it’s a problem, but does it mean that “students can’t be penalized if their work is scientifically wrong as long as the reasoning is because of their religious beliefs”? Eh, I don’t think so. Let’s say the question is “How old is the Earth?” A creationist student answers “6,000 years according to my reading of the Bible.” When deciding whether that’s right or wrong, the teacher is allowed to use “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance” and “legitimate pedagogical concerns” to determine that that is not the correct answer. But if the student and their family object, and sue the teacher and school district, would there then be a fight over whether that’s a “legitimate” pedagogical concern? Is it an “ordinary” standard to expect the child to give an answer that is in their science textbook? And would that wrong answer be considered a “penalty” for their “religious beliefs?” I mean, you can sue over anything but in this case it appears that the language is vague enough to ensure that a lawsuit like that would not be thrown out of court immediately. And that’s the entire point. 

If you read it as directly as you can, the bill solves a problem that simply does not exist. The only direct application of this bill in my example would be if a student replied to the test question “My textbook says that scientists think the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, but I believe that the Bible puts the age of the earth at 6,000 years.” First of all, I cannot imagine a student writing something like — instead, an evangelical child would be more likely to simply insist that the answer is “6,000 years.” And second of all, I cannot imagine a teacher penalizing a student for an answer like that. It would, in fact, answer the question. You don’t have to believe what your science teacher says, but you do have to know it and prove you understand it in order to get a passing grade. I don’t imagine there are many atheist science teachers out there champing at the bit to punish religious students (who would be the vast majority of the students they teach) for having beliefs that go against reality. 

I remember writing a frankly stupid essay for my high school history class on how smart and misunderstood William Jennings Bryan was in the Scopes trial, because I was an evangelical who wanted to recontextualize history to fit the narrative my pastor had taught me. My very smart, very skeptical history teacher didn’t punish me. He didn’t even give me a bad grade! He encouraged me to double check my sources and patted me on the back for digging in and not taking history as taught to me at face value. He wasn’t there to tell me my religious beliefs were right or wrong — he was there to teach me how to think critically, and he did a great job.

So the Ohio “religious freedom” bill may not say that “Jesus” is always a correct answer on a test, but it is dangerous and stupid. It can also be used not just to deny science but for any of the other pet evangelical issues, like homophobia. “Alan Turing is burning in hell for being gay” is a religious belief that a student could not be penalized for if this bill passes.

And it will pass, almost assuredly. As I said, 100% of Republicans in the Ohio House voted for it, and the Republicans also control the Senate. And if you think the inevitable passage of this bill is shocking, you should know that nearly identical bills have already passed or are in committees right now in Georgia, Arizona, New York, Missouri, Florida, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and probably dozens of other states that I just don’t have the time or energy to check.

Americans: call your local state representatives. Get to know them. Show up at their office. And if they are evangelicals with no respect for the separation of church and state, vote them out.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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