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 and establish guidelines “in maintaining and accommodating the diverse religious views, traditions and perspectives and students in the school.” A student would be able to use his or her own translation of the text.
Chancey, a professor at Southern Methodist University, said that regardless of a teacher’s intent, missteps happen – which can land them in legal trouble.
He first began examining classroom curriculum for dozens of Bible classes across Texas during the 2005-06 school year, then even more in 2011-12.
Chancey said that his studies found most of the classes were problematic. Throughout his report, Chancey laid out examples of proselytization of students, teaching elements of the Bible as fact, use of pseudoscience, among other things that some teachers were practicing. Two Texas school districts dropped the classes several years ago.
Opponents see such school offerings as a Trojan horse to bring far-right Christian views into schools.
Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, says it’s rare that these classes hold legal muster.
“Although they are often dressed up in neutral terms and they say these courses are not allowed to promote religion, these schools know that when it comes to implementing these courses, students are subjected to religious proselytizing and minority students are subjected to feeling excluded when these courses are offered,” she said.
State Rep. Aaron McWilliams co-sponsored North Dakota’s Bible literacy bill, which failed to advance to a final vote earlier this year.
It would have allowed students to replace any half-unit of their three required social studies credits with Bible studies. The North Dakota division of the ACLU called the bill “blatantly unconstitutional” and said school districts would likely be subject to litigation.
McWilliams told CNN he introduced the bill for his “mainly Judeo-Christian” constituency. “You can like or hate Christianity, but it’s very hard to expel the influence that it’s had on world history,” McWilliams said.