- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - An Ohio proposal that would broaden protections for students’ religious expressions in public schools has some questioning whether the bill goes too far.

Among other changes, the bill would let students express their religious viewpoints more freely in homework or in the classroom, while prohibiting educators from penalizing or rewarding students based on the content.

Backers said the measure aims to make clear what’s permitted in public schools.

“Many districts have no issue with this at all, but others take a very hardline view,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Bill Hayes, told reporters recently. He declined to name any district. He introduced the legislation after hearing of instances, he said.

The bill, which is pending in the House, is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and supported by the Catholic Conference of Ohio.

Ohio law already bars school boards from adopting policies or rules prohibiting students from exercising or expressing their religious beliefs. But the bill would scrap a piece of the law that permits districts to limit such expression to the lunch period or other non-instructional time.

That’s a concern for the Ohio School Boards Association, said the group’s legislative services director, Damon Asbury.

“As it’s currently written, it doesn’t provide any opportunity for the teacher or the administrator during instructional time to place any limitations on the student during the school day,” Asbury said in an interview. He questioned whether a teacher could intervene if a student prayed aloud in the middle of class.

Asbury said the association supports the concept of religious expression. “And I think by and large it’s not a major issue, at least it hasn’t been lately, in the schools.”

Hayes said he believed teachers could still limit disruptive behavior, while allowing students to express their religious viewpoints during class discussions.

The proposal defines religious expression as including prayer, religious gatherings, distribution of written literature and other religious activities.

The bill cleared a House committee on Wednesday. Republican House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger said he hasn’t studied the bill or discussed it with his caucus.

Ohio is one of at least nine states considering legislation on student religious expression in schools this session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others include Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

Most of the Ohio bill mirrors federal protections under the First Amendment for religious expression, but several parts go further, said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Daniels told the House committee that some phrasing could be interpreted broadly to allow for student speakers at assemblies, sports events and other activities to “proselytize their faith to attendees” as long as it was in same manner as secular speech.

He said the ACLU supports student religious expression in public schools, but there must be a balance.

“The language, I think, is so strong in some areas and so vague in other areas that it could be used for an almost unlimited amount of things by people who would wish to do so,” Daniels said in an interview.

The bill also would prohibit public schools from restricting a student’s religious expression in homework, artwork or other assignments.

Grades for such work must be calculated using “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Schools would be barred from penalizing or rewarding a student based on the religious content of the student’s work.

Daniels said such standards only muddy a teacher’s ability to score a student who’s answered a science question based on their faith rather than a textbook.

Hayes said questions could be phrased in a way that allows students to address both their beliefs and what they’ve learned in class.

“If you are buying into the fact that kids should express their views, then you shouldn’t ask them a question so that they can’t,” he said.

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