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Tennessee is having several issues related to separation of church and state.

Hamilton County just received $1.3 million for a public school “Bible history” program at the same time when schools in the state are putting up “In God We Trust” signs to comply with a recent law.

The $1.3 million is a donation from a non-profit group called “Bible in the Schools.” As you might guess, the goal is to fund an elective Bible History program that (in theory) would provide objective analysis of the Bible for county students. There’s nothing illegal about that, per se, as long as it really is taught objectively… but it’s worth noting that there’s no Qur’an Studies elective. This is one of those classes that’s sold as objective but may turn out to be a Trojan Horse to sneak theology into the public schools.

Bible in the Schools says 4,068 students in grades 6-12 completed the courses during this past academic year.

“We are committed to providing our students with a world class education, which includes making sure students develop a broad understanding of the events, writings, and ideas that have shaped Western society and the culture around them,” schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson said. “This gift — which was the largest philanthropic gift received by Hamilton County public schools during the 2017-2018 school year through community partnerships — empowered Hamilton County Schools to hire 20 qualified and certified Bible History teachers for the 2017-2018 academic year.”

Bible in the Schools board chairman Chris Maclellan said the organization’s “commitment to providing Hamilton County Schools with Bible History elective courses has sustained for nearly 10 decades. It is our privilege to deliver this gift that represents thousands of generous people who understand the importance of exposing young people to the Bible.”

He said, “Every year, there is evidence that Bible History provides a unique benefit to public school students, at no cost to taxpayers, and has a lasting impact in student lives. We look forward to having 25 participating schools this fall, and our board is greatly encouraged to have seen county-wide student access to Bible History increase from 67 percent to 81 percent in the past 24 months.”

I’m actually a huge proponent of teaching religion (from a secular, objective approach) in public schools, and I’m glad no taxpayer money is involved, but church/state separation groups would be wise to pay close attention to what’s being taught in these classes. Students, too, should speak up if they see anything that’s not objective.

This course isn’t the only way religion is finding its way into classrooms. Tennessee schools are now putting up “In God We Trust” signs to comply with a law passed last year. Again, the legal argument is that this is simply the national motto, but the *wink wink* idea behind it is that it promotes religion in public schools. What other reason would legislators have to make sure students see the motto if not its mention of God? It’s not like they’re demanding schools post the preamble to the Constitution.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Tennesseans are being careful in how they promote religion in school. They are doing whatever they can within legal limits, even if they come ever-so-close to crossing the line. They’ve learned from other states’ failures and they’re determined not to repeat those mistakes. In a way, that’s a victory for church/state separation. But as we’ve long known, the “educational” or “patriotic” guises for religious promotion often slip away when the media and watchdogs are looking the other way. All the more reason to remain vigilant, especially if you live in the state.

(Image via Shutterstock)