Monday, February 15, 2016

How Much Freedom Is Too Much Freedom In Schools?

A new bill, House Bill 425, in Ohio extends students’ freedom to express religion during the school day. Current law limits religious expression to periods of time when students are otherwise free from academic duties but restricts students from expressing themselves religiously in class and other academic settings.  This new bill states that students can engage in religiously oriented activities and expression in the form of prayer, gatherings, distribution of materials, voiced opinions, and clothing “before, during, and after school hours … to the same extent that a student is permitted to engage in secular activities.”

This bill is met with some challenges, as illustrated by Gary Daniels of ACLU in Ohio. He, as well as David Tryon, a lawyer and former president of the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Board of Education in northeastern Ohio, question the bill by pointing out its redundancies. The First Amendment already guarantees students the right to free expression in school in the form of clubs, private prayer, and religious wear. The two claim that the bill is unnecessary because it only restates these already established rights. However Daniels also questions this bill on the bases of the slippery slope. This bill is very liberal in its acceptance of religious expression, granting students the right to show their religious views even in homework assignments. Daniels argues that if students are given this right, there is nothing stopping a biology student from turning in a paper claiming creationism to be truth during a unit on evolution without penalization, since this is not science. He says that this then becomes an open question under the bill, with no definitive conclusion.

I agree that this bill is both repetitive in some aspects and too broad in others. I agree whole-heartedly with giving students the right to free expression in schools in the form of clubs, religious wear, and in some cases the right to express views in homework assignments. This last point is where the slippery slope comes in. As Daniels said, what conclusion could be made if a student submits a paper on creationism for his evolution assignment? Could the student be penalized because this is not science and doesn’t fit into the assignment, or is the student protected under this bill? Although I agree with the right to show religious views in assignments I realize that this is a very slippery topic because I don’t think that the student who turns in this paper during the evolution unit should receive full credit because that goes against the point of the unit. The bill also allows teachers to take time during class to do activities of a “moral, philosophical or patriotic theme.” I also disagree with this new privilege. Schools should not be providing moral instruction to students, I don’t think that teachers should be allowed to take time out of class to stress their own moral or philosophical views. This could easily lead to preaching in classrooms and indoctrination in schools. This is the very thing that providing rules that regulate religious expression in schools are aimed to do, and I feel that this bill can easily lend itself to getting around this protection against religious teaching in school.

There are parts of this bill that I think will do good, though. Although students already have the right to form religious groups in school, this broader bill may make that right more clear and harder to challenge. An example given in the article is a 2015 graduate, Kelly Haight, who had to seek legal help so that her religiously oriented club could use the school auditorium for one of their events. I feel that with a more broad bill firmly established, this would not happen. Since the student-run club just wanted to use the auditorium, they should have been allowed. Any other school club would be granted the use of facilities to hold events for their activities, and I feel that this was no exception. I think that with a bill like this in place there would be no way for the school to deny this use of facilities.

Overall I think this is a well-intentioned bill that will do plenty of good for students wishing to express their beliefs in school, but I feel like it does lend itself to the slippery slope argument. Maybe this could be ironed out with a few adjustments, but in the meantime, what do you think? Is this bill simply redundant? Does it provide more good to the students, or does it take away from learning? 


Thomas M. said...
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Thomas M. said...

I would agree that the bill is redundant, but redundancy is not unconstitutional. Freedom to express one's religious beliefs are protected under the First Amendment, however, students can still face persecution for their religious beliefs. Obviously the State of Ohio believed that the protection guaranteed by the First Amendment was not enough in some situations. I do not think that anyone would argue that freedom of religious expression is not a positive thing, so any bill that reinforces that ideal seems to be a force for favorable change. As for the argument that students would hand in assignments with creationism as the answer, that student would be marked incorrect. School's have educational standards that they have to follow, and evolution is is accepted in competent academic circles

Caroline Vauzelle said...

The arguments behind this bill make sense. For instance, I think it is true and remains in the framework of constitutionality that a student gets authorized to show his or her affiliation with a religious community just as he or she is authorized to show his or her love for a music band. A separationist point of view on the matter would be stricter though, saying that private beliefs altogether belong to the outside world and not to the realms of public schools. I find your explanation of the “slippery slope” counter-argument really well made, with the example of the biology class (“that goes against the point of the unit”). I would like to add that it appears dangerous to put religious education at an equal level with secular education inside the secular public education system itself. The goal of this system precisely is to give the students a common ground of knowledge and even of values, a process which could be made difficult by such a bill.

Liz S. said...

This bill is very interesting, and encompasses several parts some of which I agree with, others that I do not.

I completely agree that including ones religious beliefs in homework assignments is troublesome. What if a student did not know the answer of a homework assignment so instead she or he based her or his answer on something random, and said that was what her or his religion believed the answer to be? How can these assignments be graded? On scientific belief or religious belief? This is putting both the student and teach in a potentially awkward situation and thus I think religious belief should be removed from homework assignment completely.

In terms of the teachers being able to teach lessons on morality, while I believe a teacher should not teach based on his or her own definition of morality, I believe morality can be taught more generally, based on a wide variety of definitions of morality. Thus, I find the topic of teachers having classes on morality to be less problematic than including religious freedom to have a place in homework assignments.

nick paray said...

Schools quite often operate outside the normal realm of constitutional authority, so the bill may seem redundant to some, but it in fact it is necessary to guarantee these rights to children. However, the school setting should be irrelevant; children should be able to freely express themselves with regards to religion anywhere. A school child proclaiming their faith in Jesus provides no basis for state establishment of religion. The dissenters illustration of the scenario of a child handing in a creationist answer in a science homework is a completely fallacious argument. The bill grants rights to express religious views in homework, but nowhere stipulates that the teacher must agree and give a good grade. If I have deeply held political beliefs and a politically opposite teacher, I'm going to hand in homework that appeases them because I don't want to fail. Handing in that homework doesn't inherently change my political belief, so too should the child's education not interrupt their religious belief.