SHoWLE Opposes Senate Bill 49: The Religious Expression Days “R.E.D.” Act.

This ses­sion, the Ohio Senate intro­duced Senate Bill 49 also known as The Religious Expression Days “R.E.D.” Act. If passed it would give reli­gious stu­dents in pub­lic schools three days off each year for reli­gious rea­sons. SHoWLE oppos­es this bill for the main rea­son is it gives spe­cial priv­i­leges to reli­gious stu­dents. We also don’t believe a law is need­ed since many school dis­tricts cur­rent­ly make accom­mo­da­tions for reli­gious obser­vances.

SHoWLE President Douglas Berger sub­mit­ted writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ny to the Ohio Senate Education com­mit­tee. Here is the text of his remarks:

March 13, 2023

RE: Senate Bill 49 Opposition Testimony

Chair Brenner, Vice Chair O’Brien, Ranking Member Ingram and mem­bers of the Education Committee, my name is Douglas Berger, and I am President of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie (SHoWLE) based in Toledo. On behalf of my mem­bers, I write to you to express our oppo­si­tion to Senate Bill 49: The Religious Expression Days “R.E.D.” Act.

We believe that the bill is well inten­tioned, and we believe that it is seen as being “fair” and “just” to stu­dents who have reli­gious beliefs and who may have been treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly by their pub­lic schools when it comes to hav­ing an excused absence to observe a reli­gious hol­i­day or obser­vance. However, we believe this pro­posed law is NOT equi­table to all stu­dents since it excludes the non-religious. It could undu­ly bur­den the reli­gious by requir­ing them to reg­is­ter with the school dis­trict to be allowed to prac­tice their reli­gion. It also cre­ates an unfund­ed man­date on already strapped pub­lic school dis­tricts and based on cur­rent legal prece­dents Senate Bill 49 is sim­ply not need­ed as a state law.

The 1st amend­ment of the US Constitution ensures gov­ern­men­tal neu­tral­i­ty in mat­ters of reli­gion. US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote in 1961:

The “estab­lish­ment” clause pro­tects cit­i­zens also against any law which selects any reli­gious cus­tom, prac­tice, or rit­u­al, puts the force of gov­ern­ment behind it, and fines, impris­ons, or oth­er­wise penal­izes a per­son for not observ­ing it. The Government plain­ly could not join forces with one reli­gious group and decree a uni­ver­sal and sym­bol­ic cir­cum­ci­sion. Nor could it require all chil­dren to be bap­tized or give tax exemp­tions only to those whose chil­dren were bap­tized.

The state can­not enact a law, for exam­ple, that says pub­lic school stu­dents can­not be excused for any reli­gious hol­i­days or obser­vances. That would vio­late the 1st Amendment and would look hyp­o­crit­i­cal since most schools are closed on Christmas and Easter. Why then should a pro­posed law that forces school dis­tricts to give spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion only to stu­dents who are reli­gious be prop­er or need­ed?

According to some esti­mates, there are rough­ly 4,200 reli­gions, church­es, denom­i­na­tions, reli­gious bod­ies, faith groups, tribes, cul­tures, move­ments, ulti­mate con­cerns, which at some point in the future will be count­less.

We are famil­iar with the big ones like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam but there are also hun­dreds more like Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, Bahai Faith, many Greek Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Unitarianism, Gnosticism, Unification Church, Druze, Shia Islam, Sunni Islam, Sufism, Kabbalah, Orthodox Judaism, Humanistic Judaism, Wicca, Mongolian shaman­ism, Adat Pu’un, Malaysian folk reli­gion, Hawaiian reli­gion, Sino-Tibetan, African Zionism, Black Hebrew Israelites, Deism, and Zoroastrianism.

Then we get to Africa and find Bantu, Louisiana Voodoo, Santeria, and in America we find lots more Native American reli­gions like Alaska Native reli­gion, Ojibwe spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, Cherokee folk reli­gion, Aztec reli­gion, Maya reli­gion, and so on….

My point is that based on the cur­rent lan­guage of Senate Bill 49, there would be a seri­ous issue try­ing to accom­mo­date all those reli­gious beliefs. There are only 180 days on a school cal­en­dar. The cre­at­ed obser­vance cal­en­dars would have no room for any­thing else but obser­vances, feast days, and high holy­days.

Last leg­isla­tive ses­sion, a sim­i­lar bill was passed that applied to col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. In one of the news arti­cles about that bill, some­one com­ment­ed about the same prob­lem of too many reli­gions and not enough days avail­able.

It would be nat­ur­al to lim­it what obser­vances are accom­mo­dat­ed but a state law would not be able to lim­it what could be observed. We also won­der why the text of Senate Bill 49 sets the num­ber of days allowed at such an arbi­trary num­ber. The bil­l’s spon­sor offered no rea­son for choos­ing 3 days.

We are also trou­bled by the sec­tion of the bill apply­ing to teach­ers. Is it the intent of this leg­is­la­ture to make it hard­er to staff pub­lic schools by allow­ing teach­ers to take up to 3 days off each year and not putting any guardrails up like you did requir­ing stu­dents to request the days off at the begin­ning of the year? Most if not all teacher con­tracts have days off they can take if need­ed but they have to get it approved in advance because that class­room time has to be cov­ered. This leg­is­la­ture is also con­sid­er­ing bills includ­ing Senate Bill 11 that is in this com­mit­tee now, that would remove mil­lions of dol­lars from pub­lic school bud­gets. How will a dis­trict strug­gling under the weight of more bud­get cuts pay to cov­er for a teacher to be absent for a reli­gious obser­vance?

This brings me to our strongest objec­tion to this bill. It excludes the non-religious. What if my 7th grad­er want­ed to take a day off to observe Charles Darwin’s Birthday? According to the lan­guage of this bill and the intent of the spon­sors it only pro­tects stu­dents who have reli­gious beliefs.

A pro­po­nent of this bill claimed that non-religious pub­lic school stu­dents have an advan­tage over stu­dents who are reli­gious. They offered no proof or exam­ple. I checked with some of the dis­tricts near me and found by and large they all have absence poli­cies that allow for time off for reli­gious obser­vances and I know from my own per­son­al expe­ri­ence it was not unusu­al to see a lot of fore­heads with ash cross­es on Ash Wednesday in my pub­lic high school.

Another pro­po­nent said that their reli­gion could lead to an absence of 13 days for the death of a par­ent. I find it hard to believe any pub­lic school dis­trict would not make accom­mo­da­tions for that sit­u­a­tion.

I could not find any con­crete exam­ples beyond anec­do­tal evi­dence that dis­tricts are sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ing against stu­dents who want time off for reli­gious obser­vances.

Religion in pub­lic schools is one of the most reg­u­lat­ed and lit­i­gat­ed areas of gov­ern­ment. There have been count­less court cas­es that helped cor­rect vio­la­tions of the 1st amend­ment by school offi­cials and dis­tricts. This law isn’t need­ed because if some­one is dis­crim­i­nat­ed in a pub­lic school due to reli­gion there are exist­ing process­es in place to cor­rect that. Parents have tremen­dous pow­er to have their child excused for reli­gious rea­sons and schools will make accom­mo­da­tions to make up work or tests if the child does­n’t abuse that accom­mo­da­tion.

I sym­pa­thize with stu­dents who feel they have to choose between school and their reli­gion, but pub­lic school is not a pri­vate reli­gious school. Students have to make com­pro­mis­es when attend­ing a pub­lic school like attend­ing five days a week, or some­times hav­ing to attend on a par­tic­u­lar reli­gious obser­vance day. Students who feel they can­not make that com­pro­mise can already ask for accom­mo­da­tion for an obser­vance or they can attend a pri­vate school that caters to their reli­gious beliefs while giv­ing them an edu­ca­tion.

The 1st amend­ment pro­hibits the gov­ern­ment from estab­lish­ing a reli­gion and court cas­es over the years say that the gov­ern­ment should not show favoritism for one sect or many sects and that the right of the non-religious also needs to be pro­tect­ed. The gov­ern­ment should remain neu­tral in reli­gious mat­ters. That is why the lan­guage of this bill makes a point to stress “a class­room teacher must accept with­out ques­tion the sin­cer­i­ty of a stu­den­t’s reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al belief sys­tem and keep alter­na­tive accom­mo­da­tion requests con­fi­den­tial” because to do any­thing else opens the school up to a law­suit. So we know that is a con­cern of the out­side group who offered the text of the bill and it is a con­cern for us too.

While I am heart­ened to read the writ­ten pro­po­nent tes­ti­mo­ny from a vari­ety of reli­gious groups that they sup­port reli­gious free­dom, I should point out that reli­gious free­dom also means free­dom from reli­gion. If a law will bur­den a reli­gious belief or the non-religious, then the state needs a com­pelling sec­u­lar rea­son for doing so and we feel Senate Bill 49 does­n’t meet that lev­el.

To me and my mem­bers, who are not reli­gious, we see the lan­guage of the bill giv­ing a ben­e­fit to the reli­gious that the non-religious will not be allowed to have 3 addi­tion­al per­son­al days off. How is that not going against the 1st amend­ment?

If you want to “pro­tect” a stu­den­t’s reli­gious expres­sion days, why not amend this bill, and make it tru­ly sec­u­lar in intent by remov­ing all the lan­guage about reli­gion and reli­gious beliefs and sub­sti­tute “for rea­sons of con­science”.