Proposed Ohio Law Would Give Religious Cover To Bully LGBT Students In Public Schools

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image of Ohio House of Represenatives in session
Ohio House of Represenatives in session. Photo by Joshua Rothaas Used with permission.

In Ohio, Substitute HB 425, also known as the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act seems to codify rights in state law that public school students currently enjoy from the 1st amendment of the US Constitution and that have been affirmed through various court cases over the years. Why would a GOP majority seem to want to protect religious freedom for students? To give cover to discriminate and bully LGBT students of course.

A majority of the HB 425 just rehashes current legal precedents covering religious freedom in the public schools. As the Columbus Dispatch put it:

But House Bill 425, sponsored by State Rep. Bill Hayes, R-Harrison Township, though pressed as an attempt to “clarify” the law concerning religious expression in public schools, seems just as likely to provoke additional conflicts.

Religious expression in schools already enjoys many legal protections. Students can pray by themselves or with others, can read sacred texts, can pray before meals and tests, and discuss religious matters with any students willing to listen. While schools can’t organize religious observances, they can rent their facilities to groups that seek to hold religious baccalaureate programs. Students can express their religious beliefs in homework and art. If a school allows distribution of nonschool literature, it must allow religious literature to be distributed, too, subject to the same rules. Religious clubs have the same right to use school facilities as nonreligious clubs. Religious clothing and religious messages on clothing are protected.

Broadly speaking, the only kind of religious expression that is prohibited is that which seeks to impose itself on a captive audience, for example, allowing someone to read a prayer over the school’s public-address system to students in classrooms, forcing the message on students who might not be interested in it. Also, school employees may not proselytize while acting in their official capacities.

Much of HB 425 reiterates these points. But the bill contains some language that seems likely to result in litigation.

Controversy more likely

The Dispatch editorial mentions possible opening up morning announcements to morning prayer and possible conflict between a student’s religion and homework assignments.

What Sub HB 425 does, that is new, is to give cover to bully or harass LGBT persons in the public schools under the broad claim of “religious liberty”.

Under the proposed Sec. 3320.01 B (4) “religious expression” is defined as:

(4) Any other activity of a religious nature, including wearing symbolic clothing or expression of a religious viewpoint, provided that the activity is not obscene, vulgar, offensively lewd, or indecent.

“Expression of a religious viewpoint” is often code for speaking out against gay rights which can lead to bullying of LGBT people at school. Religion should not be an excuse to bully people.

In one national report, from 2011, 85% of LGBT students reported harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and nearly 20% reported “being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

Ohio needs to stop protecting bullies through unnecessary laws like that proposed in Sub. HB 425.

The Secular Coalition for America, who I work with, has an Action Alert for Ohioans to use to contact their state representatives.

Action Alert in Ohio! Tell your lawmaker to oppose bullying in public schools!


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