The Good Book Goes to School

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?

5 thoughts on “The Good Book Goes to School

  1. I just read those guidelines. If I were a public school teacher, I might still have a hard time discriminating where the line is between teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible. Generally, I think the difference would look something like this:

    Teaching the Bible (Illegal): “Then Moses and the children of Israel were poised on the left bank of the Red Sea. Ramses II and his troops were behind them and coming in fast. Then God’s invisible hands came down from heaven and suddenly parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could get safely to the other side. God always protects the people who rely upon him.”

    Teaching about the Bible (Legal): “The first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) are often portrayed as having been personally written by Moses, and some Bibles (authorized KJV) refer to them as the Books of Moses. However, many Biblical scholars do not believe that Moses actually wrote these books. One of the principal reasons is the fact that the language style and manner of presentation are all “dead ringers” for the written Hebrew language style that was common in the time of King David. Some have suggested that the five books of Moses are actually later rewrites of much earlier manuscripts and some have suggested that the stories such as the creation story and Noah and the ark are ancient Jewish folk tales that were passed down orally for many generations and finally incorporated into the five books during the reign of King David. Now, here is the evidence that these scholars cite…”

    Does that distinction look about right? No wonder the Christian Neo-Fundamentalists are anxious to prevent the state of Texas from specifying a legally compliant state-wide Bible curriculum. That would make it nearly impossible for local school systems to turn English literature classes into fundie Sunday school classes. Instead, they want to keep it very loose, ambiguous, and slack so they can teach their narrow theology to my United Methodist kids when mommy and daddy are not present and watching.

    Why don’t you folks just invite the kids to Sunday school class over at your church like all the rest of us do?

  2. If you asked me, I’d say that a law setting up classes–even optional classes–about one specific religious text is still an endorsement of a particular religion. Now, a “Survey of World Scriptures” class, which includes the Bible along with other significant religious texts from different traditions, would be a great thing. But they’re not going to do that, because what they really want is to promote the Bible over other scriptures.

  3. I agree with you Wes. A world religions class would be more along the lines of a sound understanding of our global culture. Especially here in the U.S.
    After all, the U.S. is a vast melting pot of global culture. All views should have equal time. Not to preach, but to teach.

  4. Its an elective for one to take they aren’t pushing it on anyone…. The First settlers brought the BIBLE over here with them running from religious persecution…. Wouldn’t you want to study what motivated them to endure such a dangerous voyage for freedom… If it wasn’t for that BIBLE and PEOPLE believing in it WE wouldn’t be here….

  5. I disagree. Europe already had colonies in America, and only some of the settlers, like the Pilgrims, settled due to religion. Teaching about the Bible’s impact on history would be helpful, but only that far. Anything else, and we might as well teach evolution in church. Also, it’s biased to only provide a Bible class. There should be a world religion class, not just a Bible class.