Friday, November 15, 2019

The Ohio religion bill, misunderstood

Andrew Koppelman

For a scholar of law and religion, the Newsweek headline sounded irresistible:  NEW OHIO LAW LETS STUDENTS GIVE WRONG ANSWERS ON TESTS FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS.”  It confirms secularists’ worst fears about the religious right.  But it wasn’t news.  It was a particularly pernicious kind of popular fiction.

A Patheos blog post began thus:

Anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-education: In a disturbing development the Ohio House has passed legislation that would allow students to give wrong answers and not be penalized if those wrong answers are based on the student’s “sincerely held religious belief.”

For example, “If public school students turn in work saying the earth is only 10,000 years old, they cannot be penalized under Ohio House Bill 164 if its their religious beliefs.”  The law “would allow students to substitute religious dogma for science.”

The story, which was picked up by many news outlets, turns out not to be true.  The bill provides that a school “shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.”  It evidently reflects a concern about students being prevented from expressing their religious beliefs when they are relevant, in English or History classes.  If a student is given the opportunity to choose a book to study, she should be able to pick part of the Bible; if asked to write about someone they admire, they should be able to pick Jesus Christ.  There are anecdotes in which teachers have not allowed religious answers to otherwise open-ended questions, sometimes under the misimpression that the First Amendment forbids students from discussing their faith.  (It doesn’t.)  There’s a real concern here to which the bill responds.  Nothing in the legislative language suggests that students can avoid doing the work that is assigned. 

This episode, which went viral – the Patheos story got more than 20,000 shares on its first day – shows an enormous appetite for stories that show that crazed demons are taking over American politics.  That kind of Manichean story is, of course, the key to Trump’s success, but this isn’t only about him.  Here the left is doing it too.

The great challenge of contemporary polarized American politics is to construct a narrative in which everyone can recognize themselves and see a place for themselves.  Trump has no interest in that.  The next president had better.  Episodes like this one aren’t helping.

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