You’ve probably heard about this Ohio law that dictates that teachers can’t penalize students for religious references in their essays and exams. Snopes thinks it’s harmless, and doesn’t affect the separation of church and state. I’m going to say that that is only true if you entirely ignore context and history and take every word literally. Here’s the law:
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.
It’s true, it does say “grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance,” but I have to ask…what is the purpose of this law? That’s how we calculate grades and scores now! Is there some mysterious network of teachers who have been using the frequency of “Praise Jesus!” comments in essays as an essential rubric? This is a law purportedly stating rules for STEM classes, where religious statements are irrelevant. Why do we need a law to set standards for religious statements?
Right now, if a student answers an exam question with the words “Praise Jesus” somewhere on the page, like a little doodle that they did in their spare time, I’d treat it exactly as I would if they sketched a picture of a dinosaur…as something to to ignore. However, if every other sentence in an essay was about Jesus (or dinosaurs — I don’t teach paleontology), I’d start marking it down for incoherence or irrelevancy. “Ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance” prohibit religious expression in most circumstances because we’re going to value clarity, brevity, and accuracy, so this law is redundant.
Except that what it’s really about is getting religion into the STEM curriculum somehow. It’s saying, “Don’t think of an elephant,” knowing that it immediately puts religious parents on guard to protest if their favorite creation myth isn’t discussed in biology class. This law was not written by someone concerned about the teaching of science, but by someone who wants to guarantee that theology will be brought up in science class.
Another way to think of it is that this is a law about a peculiar non-issue. Imagine if Ohio created a law that said you cannot prohibit or penalize a student from engaging in discussion of Jack Nicklaus, golfing legend, in homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Would this actually be a proposal to guarantee fairness in science teaching, or do you think it would be more of an effort to promote Jack Nicklaus? Or golfing. Or the lawmaker’s golf course.
We’ve also got decades of precedent where creationists like to nibble away, inserting references to their beliefs in all kinds of laws, and then standing back with an expression of incredulity that you’d find this harmless little acknowledgment of America’s Christian heritage at all offensive, but they’ll build on it and grow and grow the Jesus nonsense a phrase at a time into the law books. They’re patient and dedicated. That law is only the first step to expand religious bias into STEM classes, I promise you.