Ohio bill would bar teachers from grading students down for wrong, but religiously motivated, answers

The Ohio House of Representatives this week passed a truly astounding bill that would allow students to give wrong answers on their science tests so long as they do so in religious terms. That’s not an exaggeration. House Bill 164, labeled the “Student Religious Liberties Act,” would amend the state’s Education Code to forbid schools from “prohibit[ing] a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of housework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments.” That might sound benign, except that there are times when religious expression is inappropriate, or where it is simply the wrong answer to a question—and if the word “prohibit” in the bill is interpreted as including any kind of penalty, then the result would be that teachers could not penalize a student who answered, say, the question, “What is the capital of Ohio?” with the answer, “God told me it was Tallahassee.”

That’s not an unrealistic interpretation of the bill, because the next sentence says,

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.

Thus if a student answered a question such as

This cladogram shows the evolutionary relationships among four species. One of the species in the cladogram is labeled as Species X. Check the box to select the species that are members of the smallest clade that includes Species X

(a question I borrowed from a sample test on the Ohio Department of Education’s website), the student could answer, “My religion says that evolution never happened and there’s no such thing as clades”— and a teacher who penalized the student for giving the wrong answer would be in violation of the law.

It’s not just science, of course. The Ohio bill would also apply to English teachers whose students refuse to read assignments that they consider religiously offensive, or History teachers whose students give wrong, but religiously motivated, answers on exams about history. A science teacher whose students insist that the world was created in 4004 B.C.E., or a history teacher whose students insist that the Nephites used wheeled chariots —all these and more would be in danger of violating the law for grading a student down for such answers, no matter how the test questions are phrased. And good luck to teachers who are trying to teach about religion. If a student refuses to answer questions about some religion not her own, on the grounds that doing so is a sin—what is a teacher to do?

True, the bill also says teachers may calculate grades based on “relevance,” but these hypothetical religious answers (or lack thereof) are relevant. And in any event, determining relevancy is arguably itself a conclusion based on “religious content.” To tell a student that her religious view has no bearing on such-and-such is to make a statement about the content of her religious opinion. And while the bill allows teachers to base grades on “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” it’s anyone’s guess what that phrase means. It’s never been defined by Ohio courts, and although federal courts have used it phrase, they’ve done so not in the context of religion, but in the context of freedom of speech. In those cases, courts have interpreted it very broadly—in one case, for instance, holding that “the makeup of the curriculum” is “by definition a legitimate pedagogical concern.” But the Ohio bill can’t mean that, because that would make the rest of the sentence in the bill pointless—it would mean teachers could penalize or reward students based on the religious content of work if that religious content results in an incorrect answer. Obviously that’s not the correct interpretation. Instead, the bill simply bars teachers from grading students down for wrong answers if those students claim that their wrong answers were “religious expressions.”

And none of this even tries to explain how judges are supposed to interpret “ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance”—let alone how that phrase can be reconciled with a law that forbids teachers from “penalizing or rewarding” students who give wrong answers that happen to be religious in nature. At a minimum, these vague and mutually contradictory terms would likely involve schools in countless disputes, including lawsuits, by students or activists claiming that a low grade was the result of “the religious content of a student’s work.”

For many years now, schools have said that their concern isn’t with religious belief, but with students’ understanding: if a student comprehends evolution, it’s not the school’s concern whether or not the student also believes it. That’s a fair approach. But the Ohio bill would disrupt this balance by allowing students who do not comprehend evolution—or any other factual matter that is disputed by a religious dogma—to either refuse to answer, or give an objectively wrong answer, phrased in terms of belief, and thereby veto the teacher’s ability to render an accurate grade.

That does a disservice not only to teachers, who have to try to figure out how to teach under these circumstances, but to students themselves. Excusing them from the challenge of learning, or from facing conflicting views about the nature of the world, does them no favors—either as future citizens or as future religious believers. It not only deprives them of an education in science, history, etc., but also of the important experience of having to face the complex and important philosophical and scientific challenges of life, to say enable them to use their religious beliefs as a trump card in the classroom. Obviously students, like everyone else, have a right to religious freedom. But House Bill 164 is a sloppy, dangerous, counterproductive way to address that problem. The Ohio Senate should refuse to give it their votes.