Two years ago, the state of Texas passed a law encouraging — but NOT mandating — elective Bible courses in public schools. (TFN and other religious and civil liberties groups worked very hard to make sure this new law included a few common-sense safeguards that would prevent teachers from turning such courses into Sunday school classes that favored one interpretation of the Bible over others. A 2006 TFN Education Fund report authored by Dr. Mark Chancey of SMU revealed that existing public school Bible courses were rife with such problems.)
Predictably, the pious lawmakers who were so anxious to introduce the Bible into the classroom quickly declared “mission accomplished” when the bill passed and left school districts and teachers with the difficult task of figuring out how to implement these courses. Worse, the Texas Legislature failed to appropriate any money for teacher training (though the law specifies that such training is a prerequisite to offering Bible courses), and the State Board of Education neglected to provide any curriculum guidelines for teachers who wish to construct an appropriate course (again, though the law specifies that such curriculum standards be adopted).
The new law went into effect earlier this month, and surprise, surprise: school districts around the state are confused about what the law means and are nervous about satisfying its requirements. Wow. Who could have predicted that?
Luckily, the ACLU of Texas has ridden to the rescue. Last week, they published a simple fact sheet that helps school districts, parents and students understand how to navigate the thorny issues surrounding religion in Texas public school curricula. Among the important clarifications this document provides:
• The Act grants Texas public high schools the authority to offer an elective course in the history and literature of the Bible, but does
not require that they offer such a course.
• Public schools can teach about the Bible in an objective and academic manner, “as part of a secular program of education.” For
instance, classes may examine the Bible from a literary or historical perspective.
• Public schools cannot teach about the Bible when they lack a secular purpose for doing so, the primary effect of the class is to
advance religion, or the class fosters excessive entanglement between government and religion.
• Ask yourself, “Does the course teach the Bible or teach about the Bible?” Theological study of the Bible or other religious texts
violates the Establishment Clause, while objective study about such texts does not.
• Teachers cannot present religious doctrine to their students as a means of proselytizing or promoting a particular faith, or
promoting religion over non-religion.
TFN commends this excellent resource to any school district that is confused about the new law — and to any parents who want to be sure that the religious freedom of their children is respected at school (something ALL parents should be concerned about).
Kudos to our friends at the ACLU of Texas for picking up the ball our state policy-makers dropped. And isn’t it a sweet irony that the very group religious conservatives constantly criticize for suing school districts is doing more to keep schools out of court than the far-right demagogues who harass them?