Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

Lately there’s been a rash of state legislators introducing bills that would allow—and in some cases require—public schools to offer elective courses about the Bible.

Two Republican state senators in West Virginia, for example, sponsored a bill earlier this month that would require all schools, both public and private, to offer an elective course that teaches “knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture”. The smokescreen is that the course should look at the Bible as an influence on culture while adhering to “religious neutrality.”

In practice, of course, that’s not how it usually works. Heather Weaver, a staff attorney with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief explains, “In many instances, the schools that want to teach the Bible are not doing so out of a desire to truly educate their students about the Bible. It’s more of a desire to promote Christianity and religious beliefs.” She stated that in the 14 years she has been working in the field she has rarely seen such a course that didn’t proselytize to some extent.

Iowa Republicans have also introduced a bill in the state house to allow high schools to create elective Bible classes, but this bill does not mandate their creation. Again, the stated purpose of the classes is to help students understand history and culture. In the language of the bill, the purpose of the class “must be to provide students with knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, and to familiarize students with the contents, history, literary style and structure, and influence of the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament of the Bible.”

On Tuesday, however, the bill’s sponsor State Rep. Skyler Wheeler, offered some insight into the real purpose of the bill. A colleague, State Rep. Mary Mascher, warned him that she plans to offer amendments to the bill supporting other elective courses, “including ones on the Koran, the Talmud and other subjects that represent more diverse parts of society.”  Wheeler’s response was predictable: he would not support her amendments saying, “The Bible is different than the Koran. The idea of the bill is because of the specific impact the Bible has had on history, our history, our founding, our culture, that the Koran has not had that impact.” In other words, the only culture Wheeler is interested in is Christian culture.

West Virginia and Iowa may join several other states which already have bills allowing elective bible-literacy classes to be taught in public schools, including: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

Let’s not put all the blame on Republican legislators though. Democrats in at least two states are also coming up with ways to ensure that the Christian god is represented in the public schools. A bill pending in Florida, sponsored by Democratic State Representative Kimberly Daniels, mandates that all schools in the state display the motto “In God We Trust” in a “conspicuous place.”  Meanwhile, Credell Calhoun, a Democratic member of the state house in Mississippi proposed legislation (which, thankfully, recently died in committee) that would have required the 10 Commandments to be posted in every classroom in the state.  (“In God We Trust” signs are already required in classrooms in Mississippi.) Not only that, but the bill would have mandated  that the 10 Commandments be recited in each classroom each morning.

On second thought, maybe elective Bible course aren’t so bad.