Texas Attorney General Cannot Certify Bible Courses Will Be Constitutional
Vague Standards Proposed by State Board of Education Will Put Religious Freedom, Local Taxpayers at Risk, TFN President Says
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 9, 2008
Today the Texas attorney general made clear that he cannot certify that public school courses about the Bible offered under proposed statewide standards will be constitutional.
It is now imperative that the State Board of Education develop new, specific standards that ensure local school districts do not run afoul of the constitution, Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said.
“It is critically important that the state board provide clear, specific curriculum standards that guide local school districts on how to create worthy courses that also protect the religious freedom of students,” Miller said. “The state board approves specific standards for courses like aerobics and food technology. Surely a study of the Bible’s influence in history and literature and protecting religious freedom deserve the same respect.”
In a letter today, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says that the proposed statewide standards for public school elective Bible courses “appear to be facially valid under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution” but that his office cannot ensure whether courses developed under those standards will meet constitutional muster.
Miller warned that the proposed standards are so vague and so general that many public schools might easily and even unknowingly create unconstitutional Bible courses that either promote the religious views of teachers or disparage the religious beliefs of students and their families.
The State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to the proposed standards on first reading in March of this year. Under House Bill 1287, passed by the Legislature in 2007, the attorney general was required to review those standards to ensure that the Bible courses would comply with First Amendment protections for religious freedom.
The proposed standards mirror existing general standards for “independent study” courses in social studies and literature and fail to focus specifically on the Bible. A 2006 report for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund by Mark Chancey, a professor of biblical studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, found that 22 of 25 Texas public school Bible courses modeled on those “independent study” standards were deeply flawed. Those courses often promoted the religious views of the teacher; failed to meet even minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications, curriculum and academic rigor; and pushed an ideological agenda that was hostile to religious freedom. The report is available here.
The Ector County Independent School District (Odessa) settled a lawsuit over its Bible class earlier this year by agreeing to develop a new curriculum that complies with First Amendment protections for religious freedom.
“The state board has a responsibility to provide local districts the clear guidance they need to stay out of court and provide a quality education for their students,” Miller said. “Providing vague, general guidelines about something so important as the study of the Bible is an irresponsible cop-out. If the board doesn’t do the right thing, then local school officials and the parents and other taxpayers in their districts should know that they were abandoned by their own state board members.”
The state board is likely to consider the proposed standards on second and final reading at its July 17-18 hearing in Austin.
The Texas Freedom Network is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of religious and community leaders who advance a mainstream agenda supporting public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.