There's a push for classes on the Bible in public schools. And there's also a pushback

Students take a Bible history class at Ooltewah High School, on September 25, 2017, in Ooltewah, Tennessee. The class is sponsored by a private group called Bible in the Schools. The teacher, Bibles and other classroom materials are paid for by the private group.

(CNN)Legislators across the country have reignited the fight for, and debate over so-called "Bible literacy classes" -- elective courses in public schools about Scriptures' impact.

Alabama, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia are among the states that have seen Bible literacy bills so far in 2019. Several of those efforts have fallen along the wayside.
While advocates for such classes believe students ought to be able to learn about the Bible's influence on world history, culture and language, opponents tout separation of church and state and their concerns that teachers might possibly stray into proselytizing.
    Missouri's House Bill 267, nearly identical to other states' drafted legislation, allows and encourages public high schools to adopt elective classes focusing on the history, writing style and influence of "the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament."
    Doug Jacobson has a unique perspective on the matter: He's pastor of Eureka Baptist Church in Richland, Missouri, and elementary superintendent at the small public Swedeborg R-3 School District.
    Jacobson -- who has officiated at weddings of former students and is asked to pray for the families of students -- agrees with those who say a comparative religion class could be a less controversial route for educators, rather than emphasizing the Bible.
    "Why not open it up to world religions and all different faiths, then you're not trying to proselytize anyone into any particular religion or denomination," he said.
    The pastor-superintendent said that many of the Bible's core moral teachings are already ingrained in the way that we teach children.
    But backers of bills that promote a "Judeo-Christian framework" for classes were buoyed earlier this year by a January tweet by President Donald Trump, "Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!"

    Florida and the King James version of the Bible

    Several of the Bible literacy bills have already been struck down or are no longer being considered in current sessions.
    Legislation filed in Florida -- which recently died in committee -- is typical of the debate over the Bible and public classrooms.
    "One thing that the Bible does teach is wisdom," Rep. Mike Hill, co-sponsor of Florida's House Bill 195, told CNN last month. "I don't think anyone could deny that we so desperately need wisdom in our public schools right now."
    Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a fellow Republican co-sponsor of the state's Bible literacy bill, told CNN that classes would focus on the Bible as a work of literature, specifically the King James Bible, an English translation used in Protestant churches.
    "The King James Bible is considered one of the two or three greatest works of literature in Western civilization. This is a class that recognizes that and focuses on the language of the book," Sabatini said.
    Mark Chancey, an expert on the political, academic and constitution issues raised by Bible courses in public schools, says selecting a specific translation of the Bible can lead to unconstitutional territory. The professor cited the Philadelphia nativist riots of 1844 that broke out partially over the use of the King James version in public schools and what some called anti-Catholic rhetoric.
    "If a course says, 'We're going to use the King James,' then they're basically -- knowingly or not -- promoting Protestantism," Chancey said during an interview with CNN. He said that there is nothing wrong with examining this translation, but the most constitutional approach would include multiple translations.
    Linda K. Wertheimer, author of "Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance," said while Bible literacy classes could be beneficial, they generally don't aim to educate students for the sake of critical thinking.
    "The question is, are they really creating these courses to improve both biblical literacy and religious literacy?" she told CNN. "Or are these particular courses that are being started right now part of the effort from the religious right or evangelical Christians to push Christianity back into the schools?"

    Project Blitz and the backlash

    The movement behind Bible literacy classes has ebbed and flowed throughout the past 20 years, but is the most emboldened during the years under a Republican leadership in the White House.
    The Republican Party put the Bible literacy push into writing in its official 2016 platform: "A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America's high schools."
    A key supporter of such classes is the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and additional evangelical conservative groups, who together created Project Blitz. This aims "to protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs."
    Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been fighting Project Blitz for more than a year, arguing that "church-state separation as the only way to ensure freedom of religion."
    The group sent a letter to Florida legislators in response to the pending legislation, warning of the potential for proselytizing and putting pressure on pupils to take classes "designed to promote a particular religion."
    CNN reached out several times to the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation for comment but received no reply.

    Are classes a Trojan horse for a bigger agenda?

    Schools districts that currently or may one day offer Bible literacy classes are walking a potential tightrope.
    Who would be qualified to teach such an elective course?
    The Missouri bill would have instruction in a social studies setting