Faith or Facts? Ohio Bill Encourages Students to Clarify Beliefs

Revision of an existing bill would allow students in Ohio to express their religious beliefs alongside answers they disagree with.

Sarah Olson
Nov 15, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

A revision of an existing Ohio education bill would allow students to clarify whether they disagree with a fact if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Under this bill, a K-12 student is allowed to offer their own religion’s answer alongside the correct answer for the assignment.

As long as they complete the assignment, they will receive credit. Their additional answer, though it would receive no credit, would be considered valid and allowed in the interest of preventing any form of religious discrimination.

Here’s how the bill phrases it:

“No school… 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.” (Sec. 3320.03)

At first glance, the “Student Religious Liberties Act” doesn’t seem like a problem. As long as the student completes the assignment, does it really matter whether they added a note clarifying their disagreement?

The bill was introduced to the Senate on Nov 14, and with its current support from Republican representatives, it will likely pass. Why does this revision matter, and why are people on Twitter worrying about it? Doesn’t it technically account for students to express hostility toward religious beliefs as well?

I argue that the root of the problem has to do with students being allowed or encouraged to disagree with scientific consensus if it doesn’t support their religious beliefs. Here’s an example: if a student were asked the age of the Earth during a test, she should answer “4.6 billion” in order to receive credit for the question. But under this bill, the student would be protected (unable to be rewarded or penalized) for adding a clarification that they don’t believe this is the age of the Earth, or that their religion informs them the Earth is actually 6,000 years old.

Now, the teacher is supposed to ignore the additional answer and move on. Technically, students aren’t required to participate in activities that conflict with their religion, nor are secular students required to participate in religious activities, according to Sec. 3313.601 of the bill: “No pupil shall be required to participate in…activities if they are contrary to the religious convictions of the pupil or the pupil’s parents or guardians.”

So why would it be a big deal for a student to write the correct scientific answer as well as their own belief? Because this belief is inherently contradicted by scientific evidence, it is problematic to encourage students to reject facts on religious grounds. Consider how young these students are: they are not in college, they’re a vulnerable age.

Teaching them that facts can be argued with and age-old scientific consensus is up for debate may be beneficial in college — when they can better understand the nuances of science and research, peer review, and how we’ve come to agree on accepted theories such as evolution and the age of the earth — but encouraging that level of thought at such a young age is simply confusing.

I was homeschooled from first through sixth grade. During that time, my parents cast doubt on science through our Christian curriculum. They taught me to distrust the authority of experts, to question them, and to assert my beliefs. I was taught to trust my faith over the facts. When I later attended high school, I realized I had never been taught evolution, or world religions, or any history or topic within science that conflicted with my conservative Christian beliefs. The Bible, as I understood it, was infallible.

I didn’t know who was right: my science teachers and their textbooks, or my church and our Bible? It hurt to come home and argue with my parents over whether or not I should accept or reject evolution. I was that kid who wrote in the margins, “I don’t believe this is really the age of the Earth,” and skipped days at school where we learned about something I wasn’t allowed to study. As a result, my education — and my emotional well-being — suffered.

In college, I was grateful to have the opportunity to take science classes and explore my interests further as I abandoned by religious beliefs. But as a result, relationships with conservative Christian family members were strained — some could not be recovered. As I began to understand the roots of their ignorance and hate, I realized how much of it began when they were young and encouraged to reject facts in favor of blind faith.

Religious discrimination and intolerance is, of course, a bad thing too. People should be allowed to practice their faith in peace. But when those religious beliefs (such as fundamentalist Christianity) involve rejecting the facts, things become problematic.

Today we are discussing what might happen when a student feels conflicted over whether to believe scientists or the Bible about the age of the Earth. But what happens when a student in their sex ed class or human anatomy and sexuality, refuses to affirm that homosexuality is a normal behavior for humans because their faith tells them it is a sin? What happens when that student leads a protest against their class receiving information on birth control and abortion because it conflicts with their religious beliefs?

When we encourage students who have been indoctrinated with their parents’ hateful and intolerant beliefs to share those beliefs at our public, federally-funded schools, we are compromising the protection the separation of church and state is supposed to afford. The problem with these religious exemptions is that they ultimately favor Christianity and accommodate exemptions that allow students to share their so-called values at school. I know this is the case because growing up in the Christian church, we are told to constantly witness to others and share our faith. We are supposed to be saving people’s souls and practicing our values all day long — and for kids, that includes school.

Progressive Christian parents are teaching their kids that they can have a religion that accommodates scientific facts (“After all, how could they know the age of the Earth when the Bible was written?”), tolerates other religions (“God has many names!”), and affirms those who are LGBTQ+ (“Love is love!”). It is entirely possible for a Christian child to grow up with a faith that does not conflict with fact.

But when we begin to welcome accommodations that encourage students to reject or argue with facts, we are feeding the fundamentalists. We are teaching our children that you can argue with the truth if it suits your desires. We are teaching future generations that what scientists — the experts — conclude ultimately holds equal or lesser value than an ancient book. I argue that what we are left with are children who are confused and unsure of who to trust.

They might even end up like me, forced to put themselves through school if they want a science degree, to catch up on all the things they were taught not to learn. It’s a confusing place to be in, that space of uncertainty, not knowing who to trust. I am deeply concerned for the students who are experiencing that conflict at home and at school because I understand firsthand what a difficult and draining experience it is.

I can only hope that as they grow up, they come to learn that it’s better to have no faith at all than to practice a religion of ignorance and intolerance.

Sarah Olson

Written by

Science writer with a flair for feminism. Exvangelical. Books, cats, coffee, Oregon.

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