Some have asked why the Texas Freedom Network supported legislation last year on elective courses about the Bible in the state’s public high schools. We agree with many scholars, teachers and clergy from our Texas Faith Network that the Bible has been so influential in history and literature that these classes can be, if taught appropriately, a valuable addition to a high school elective curriculum. In addition, federal courts have made it clear that local schools may choose to teach such courses. To pass court muster, they must be neutral and academic in nature and neither promote nor disparage religion.
But we are not naive.
We know that some are determined to turn our public schools into Sunday schools. They have long sought to use our public schools to promote their own religious views over the beliefs of all others. We know that, if not taught appropriately, these classes about the Bible could threaten separation of church and state, a constitutional principle that is vital to protecting religious freedom.
In fact, research by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund shows that most of the state’s public schools already teaching such courses do a very poor job. Most courses fail to meet even minimal standards of academic rigor. Few have teachers who are truly qualified to teach such classes. In some cases, local clergy are recruited or volunteer to do so. Most troubling is that instruction in many of the courses simply reflects the religious beliefs of the teachers and the curriculum materials they use. These are not truly academic, neutral studies of the Bible’s influence in history and in literature. They are barely disguised devotional classes.
So last year we supported — successfully — important changes the House Public Education Committee made to House Bill 1287, which established rules on offering public school Bible classes. Those amendments included key safeguards for religious freedom. The Legislature overwhelmingly passed the bill as amended. As a result, state law now requires that public school Bible classes:
- have clear, specific statewide curriculum content standards like other courses do;
- use textbooks that are academically sound; and
- be taught by academically qualified teachers who are also trained in First Amendment issues involving religious freedom.
Moreover, House Bill 1287 broadened the focus of these courses. When it was introduced, HB 1287 called for elective classes on “the history and literature of the Old and New Testament eras.” As amended, the law now permits elective classes on “religious literature, including the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and New Testament, and its impact on history and literature.” As a result, local school districts may create classes with a focus broader than the Bible. Finally, the law gives local school districts the authority to decide whether and how these courses will be taught.
The Texas Freedom Network could, of course, have opposed HB 1287 and lobbied for its defeat. But given the political makeup of the Legislature, such an effort almost certainly would have failed. Instead, we chose to work with lawmakers to pass a bill that safeguards the religious freedom of students and their families and promotes classes that have true academic value.
It has become clear in recent weeks that the State Board of Education’s faction of religious conservatives is working to undermine the safeguards put into HB 1287. If that faction succeeds in passing vague, very general curriculum standards at the state board’s meeting on Friday, local school districts will lack the guidance lawmakers knew they needed to craft worthy and legally appropriate courses. The losers will be students as well as taxpayers who foot the bill for the costly lawsuits that could follow.