COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio House Primary and Secondary Education Committee passed a bill reaffirming the First Amendment right of children to the free exercise of religion in public schools Wednesday. It passed 9 to 4 on a party line vote.
“House Bill 164 will simply codify into Ohio law the rights granted to students under the United States Constitution,” said the bill Sponsor, State Representative Timothy Ginter (R-Salem), “by ensuring to administrators, educators, students and parents with written clarity that a student enrolled in a public school may engage in religious expression in the same manner and to the same extent that a student is permitted to engage in secular activities.”
“Under the bill,” Ginter testified, “schools cannot prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression through their clothing nor in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written and oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores will still be calculated using ordinary academic standards.”
The committee has heard from six proponents and two opponents.
One proponent, Kelly Haight, was a 2015 graduate from a central Ohio high school. She told the committee she had to retain an attorney to fight for the right to have her group, called Faith, treated equally to the secular clubs.
“I also was told by school officials that Faith was being treated differently compared to other clubs because of its religious nature,” Haight shared. “I personally felt that I was manipulated, and intimidated into silence by the school during this year.”
Haight informed the committee it appears the school has changed its policies and “is moving in the right direction.” She supports the bill in the hope that future students will not be forced to obtain legal counsel to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Ryan Jayne, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, opposed the bill. “The very premise of the proposed bill is flawed: no one is advocating punishing students for engaging in non disruptive prayer, discussion religion in homework assignments or any of the other religious expressions singled out in the bill,” he declared.
A supporter of the bill, Matt Sharp, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, disagreed. “We regularly receive calls from students and their parents who have experienced discrimination against their religious speech while at…schools here in Ohio,” he stated.
Sharp shared two examples of discrimination against Ohio students.
In one case, a student was required to do a community service project and chose to collect donations for Faith Mission. He was told he could not use flyers he’d created with the name of organization on it and a picture of the building (that included a cross) because of their religious nature.
Another student had a pro-life club rejected by his principal, who stated, “this topic should stay in the church, not be brought into the school.” Alliance Defending Freedom secured the rights of both students to express their religious beliefs in their public schools.
“But no student should ever need to contact an attorney to simply express their faith at school on the same terms as their classmates,” said Sharp.
Rep. Ginter spoke exclusively with The Ohio Star after the vote.
“I am excited to see the favorable passage of HB 164 out of the House Education Committee,” he said. “I am grateful for those members who supported the bill and it’s intention of clarifying for our students the religious liberties already ensured within our Constitution.”
“I would also like to thank those who delivered proponent testimony in committee and the organizations that met with members on behalf of this bill.”
One of those key supporters was Aaron Baer of Citizens for Community Values. “Unfortunately today, the public schools have grown more hostile to religious freedom,” Baer said. “Rep. Ginter’s HB 164 ensures that Christian students – and all students of faith – are treated fairly when they head off to school.”
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