On November 14 2019, several news outlets reported that a new law in Ohio allowed students to “give wrong answers” due to their “religious belief.”
A widely-shared Patheos blog post on that day began as follows:
Anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-education: In a disturbing development the Ohio House has passed legislation that would allow students to give wrong answers and not be penalized if those wrong answers are based on the student’s “sincerely held religious belief.”
Immediately thereafter, the post linked to and quoted a November 13 2019 Cleveland.com item, headlined, “Ohio lawmakers clear bill critics say could expand religion in public schools.” In the excerpt below, the underlining begins where Patheos’ quoting stopped:
The Ohio House sent to the Senate on [November 13 2019] a measure that would prohibit public schools from penalizing students for some work that contains religious beliefs.
Critics have called the bill unnecessary or valuing religion over secularism. One critic said under the bill, if a student turned in homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old – a belief held by some creationists — they couldn’t get docked in their grade. However, the bill’s sponsor said it was more nuanced than that.
Patheos moved on to quoting a summary from a separate news organization:
The Ohio House on [November 13 2019] passed the “Student Religious Liberties Act.” Under the law, students can’t be penalized if their work is scientifically wrong as long as the reasoning is because of their religious beliefs.
However, directly under the first quoted portion above, Cleveland.com linked to and summarized Ohio House Bill 164. In the form it passed, the bill was only available as a downloadable PDF available at that link.
Throughout the text of Ohio House Bill 164, specific words do not appear: “fact/s,” “answer/s,” “test/s,” “assignment,” and “wrong.” “Science” only appeared in one portion:
Each science, technology, engineering, and mathematics school established under this chapter and its governing body shall comply with sections …
“Religious expression” appeared six times, “religious” twenty times, and “religion” once. The first appearance of “religious expression” was to define, as follows:
Sec. 3320.01. (A) Sections 3320.01, 3320.02, and 3320.03 of the Revised Code shall be collectively known as the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019.”
(B) As used in sections 3320.01 to 3320.03 of the Revised Code, “religious expression” includes any of the following [prayer, gathering, distribution of religious materials, and other].
Its second appearance was also used to define “religious expression” in the context of the bill. Mentions three and four appeared in sections of the bill pertaining to access to religious expression, namely that students were legally allowed religious expressions “to the same extent” they were permitted to engage in “secular” activities:
… Sec. 3320.02. (A) 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.
… (B) A school district, community school established under Chapter 3314., STEM school established under Chapter 3326., or a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall give the same access to school facilities to students who wish to conduct a meeting for the purpose of engaging in religious expression as is given to secular student groups, without regard to the content of a student’s or group’s expression.
A sixth mention was at the end of the bill, holding that no provisions in it would be used to limit religious expression:
Section 4. Nothing in this act is intended or shall be construed to limit or abrogate religious expression of students already guaranteed under the Ohio Constitution and the United States Constitution.
A fifth mention of “religious expression” may have been where the claim originated:
… Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school established under Chapter 3314. of the Revised Code, governing body of a STEM school established under Chapter 3326. of the Revised Code, or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school established under Chapter 3328. of the Revised Code shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. 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.
The bill seemed to allow for religious content in schoolwork to a larger extent, and allowed for “religious expression in the completion” of various forms of work. In Cleveland.com’s early coverage, a representative of Ohio’s American Civil Liberties Union said that creationism was potentially protected by the bill:
ACLU of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels called HB 164 a mixed bag. On the one hand it removes some restrictions on students’ religious rights.
On the other hand, Daniels said that if a student submitted biology homework saying the earth is 10,000 years old, as some creationists believe, the teacher cannot dock points.
“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 said.
Daniels was privy to the same bill wording quoted above, that a teacher may not “penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.” However, most sites only referenced other organizations’ reporting on the bill, and did not quote the bill itself. That bill was difficult to access, and it’s possible many people reporting on it did not read it.
Patheos’ widely-shared post concluded:
In short, the proposed Ohio law would allow students to substitute religious dogma for science, and would not allow teachers to penalize students for giving wrong answers as long as those answers are based on the student’s religious beliefs …
Bottom line: The Ohio House has passed legislation that would allow students to give wrong answers and not be penalized if those wrong answers are based on the student’s “sincerely held religious belief.”
Notably, the terminology “sincerely held religious belief” did not appear in the text of the bill. “Belief” or “beliefs” appeared twice, once in a part of the bill removed before it passed:
No board of education of a school district shall adopt any policy or rule respecting or promoting an establishment of religion or prohibiting any pupil from the free, individual, and voluntary exercise or expression of the pupil’s religious beliefs in any primary or secondary school. The board of education may limit the exercise or expression of the pupil’s religious beliefs as described in this section to lunch periods or other noninstructional time periods when pupils are free to associate.
Patheos also did not mention Rep. Timothy Ginter, sponsor of the bill, by name. Ginter addressed the matter of creationism in the early reporting by Cleveland.com, and he denied that answers like the examples given were permitted under the legislation he sponsored:
But Ginter, the bill’s sponsor, said that the student would get a lesser grade in a biology class for an evolution assignment. Even if the student doesn’t believe in evolutionary theory, the student must turn in work that accurately reflects what is taught.
“It will be graded using ordinary academic standards of using substance and relevance,” he said.
However, if students were assigned a report based on historic figures, they could turn in a paper on a historical figure, such as Moses or Mohammed, Ginter said.
Ginter said his bill is providing educators clarity on issues related to religious expression in school.
“This doesn’t give student a get-out-of-jail free card,” he said.
Patheos’ blog post racked up more than 20,000 shares as of the morning of November 15 2019. Remarkably, Facebook’s stringent filter for “clickbait” or inaccurate news did not seem to have reduced its reach.
Based on a reading of Ohio’s House Bill 164, it is not certain that the bottom line is that Ohio legislators passed legislation that explicitly allows wrong answers. The bill had to do with “religious content,” not “answers based on creationism.” Although the bill was broad enough that that sort of detail was not expressly clear, its sponsor explained that academic standards were not affected by the bill. (We contacted Ginter for clarification, and will update if we receive a response.)
It is inaccurate to say the bill explicitly allowed “wrong answers,” as its quoted portions demonstrated and Rep. Timothy Ginter clarified. No part of the bill protected “wrong answers,” just “religious content.” Myriad aggregations of the story seemed to exacerbate the inaccurate belief that Ohio’s legislature passed pro-creationism in schools legislation, which did not appear to be the case based on both the wording of the law and Ginter’s clarifications.
Update, November 15 2019, 4:21 PM: We received a response from a legislative aide to Ginter, with an appended fact sheet indicating that “an incredible amount of inaccuracies [had been] spread by the media as well as misinformed individuals on social media about the ‘Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act’ of 2019, mostly due to one news source article.”
One of two appended documents explained that, as Ginter said, the “wrong answers” claim about the Ohio bill was flat-out false:
Urban Myth No.1 – HB164 will allow students to submit inaccurate class work in the name of religion.
Fact: This is wholly inaccurate and has no basis in the legislation. The language of the bill specifically states:
“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.”
If, for example, a class is being tested on the Theory of Evolution, all students regardless of religious beliefs, must demonstrate an understanding of the Theory of Evolution. Under HB164, a student would still not be allowed to say, “my religion tells me that the world was created and is only 6,000 years old, therefore I don’t have to answer this question.” The student, regardless of their personal beliefs, will be tested and graded on the material in the class.
An example of what HB164 would allow is if students were assigned to write a book report on any book of their choosing, they cannot be penalized for picking a religious text as long as they fulfill the requirements of the assignment. Some students might pick Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief, J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or J.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Other students may choose to write a book report on a religious book, such as The Book of Job from the Bible. Again, as First Amendment jurisprudence already dictates, if the student writes the book report in a way that fulfills all the requirements of the assignment, HB164 ensures the student who picked the Book of Job cannot be penalized merely for picking a religious text.
As noted in the fact sheet, the creationist example widely used in news reports was debunked. That document addressed another element of widespread reporting on Ohio House Bill 164, that it privileged Christians over students of other religions:
Urban Myth No.5 – HB164 is a Christian Bill.
Fact: HB164 is a “Student Religious Liberties” bill.
Nowhere in the language of the bill is a specific religion mentioned. This is purposeful.Our forefathers wisely and purposely chose the word religion in order to include all faiths. HB164 provides clarity that Jewish, Muslim, Christian and students of any other faith-or no faith at all-do not surrender their religious freedom rights merely because they are attending a public school.
Multiple outlets specifically and erroneously reported Ohio House Bill 164, also called the “Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019,” legally enabled students to submit “wrong answers” and be marked correct. According to Ginter and the appended fact sheet, that specific example (which may have been an interpretation by an ACLU representative in early reporting on the bill) was inaccurate. Information provided to us clarified that “a student would still not be allowed to say, ‘my religion tells me that the world was created and is only 6,000 years old, therefore I don’t have to answer this question and that the student “regardless of their personal beliefs, will be tested and graded on the material in the class.”