One of the common criticisms that exists about all those elective Bible courses in public high schools is that they’re just Trojan horses for proselytizing. Even though those courses supposedly examine the Bible for its literary value, or teach it as a way to give students a cultural understanding of Christianity, many teachers wrongly treat the book as if it were true. That’s the job of a pastor, not a public school teacher.
It’s bad enough that these classes are sometimes no different than what you’d find in a church-run Sunday school. But what’s allegedly happening in Tennessee’s East Hamilton Middle School is beyond the pale.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently sent a letter to the Hamilton County Schools superintendent detailing the teachings in one of these supposedly secular Bible classes.
- Homework questions imply the Bible is literally true. Here’s a sampling of questions and the “correct” answers: “Q: The number of days of creation is? A: 7.” “Q: The name God gave for the garden he placed man [sic] was? A: Eden.” “Q: When God came down to see the city and the Tower of Babel, he? A: Confused their language.” “Q: How many days did it rain while Noah, his family, and the animals were in the Ark? A: 40 days and 40 nights.”
Notice that this doesn’t say things like “Biblical literalists believe the number of days of creation is ___.” Instead, it suggests the world was actually created in 7 days. Which is a lie. Pastors can lie to their congregation about that sort of thing, but public school teachers are supposed to be more reliable.
- Students were told the Bible was written by “prophets who were directly spoken to by God,” according to AU. That’s one Christian myth, sure, but it’s not an objective fact.
- Students were told to transcribe Bible verses referred to Jesus and God, though it’s not clear what the academic value is to that.
- Students were shown videos from “BibleProject,” a group whose goal is to convert viewers. In one video, AU said, we see “a forked road, with Christianity depicted as one fork, represented by light, sunshine, and color, and all other religions on the other fork, represented by storms, shadows, and darkness.”
- Students were told by the teacher that an atheist took a Bible study class in order to prove the Bible wrong… but “came away believing that the content of the class was the truth.” That sounds more like the plot for a God’s Not Dead movie than anything realistic, but the anecdote was treated as fact and the implication was that a Bible study class could convert students.
- Most damning of all, the teacher wrote a version of the Hebrew name for God on the board and told kids — this is a direct quote — “If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud.”
How is any of that acceptable in a public school classroom?
We only know about al this because Juniper Russo, a Jewish woman whose daughter is in the class, posted on Facebook about the situation. Russo said her daughter couldn’t take other electives during that period due to a disability, which is how she ended up in the Bible class, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem since it was supposed to be taught in a secular way.
Even before Russo found out what the teacher was doing in the classroom, she knew there would be problems the moment she saw the syllabus. Teacher Anna McClung said she could block students from using the bathroom and that those who went couldn’t be gone for more than 2-3 minutes. “I refused to agree to these terms,” Russo said, “because no one is going to deny my child the right to use the restroom, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic and children need to wash their hands.”
Russo also said students were expected to “know all 60 books of the Christian Bible in order,” which is nothing more than a trivia question serving no useful purpose. (Russo rightly compares it to having to memorize the first 60 digits of Pi for a math class. It might be a fun little parlor trick, but you’re not learning anything by doing it.)
Russo got in touch with both the teacher and principal, but McClung apparently refused to meet with her. (“I have been a parent for 14 years and I have never in my life heard of a teacher refusing to meet with a parent,” Russo added.) The principal said the administration was taking her concerns seriously, but it’s unclear what actions they’re taking. Hopefully the letter from AU will pressure them to do something quickly.
Whatever the case, you have to wonder: Had Russo not gone public with this, when was the school going to do anything about it? This isn’t just an illegal use of classroom time; this is blatant misinformation being taught to students under the guise of an objective Bible class.
It won’t surprise you to learn that the teacher in question has a BA in Religion and a Masters in Divinity. Those might be fine qualifications for someone eager to teach at a private Christian school but they’re clearly not helpful for the job she actually has.
McClung has no business teaching this course because it’s obvious she can’t do the job. The school district shouldn’t be offering classes like these if they can’t guarantee that students are receiving a secular education. It’s educational malpractice, a potential legal liability, and blatantly unfair to students who deserve so much better.
AU is demanding an investigation by the district:
If the district insists on maintaining the courses, it must conduct an immediate and thorough review of the curricular materials… Moreover, any teachers who teach the course must be thoroughly trained on the applicable constitutional restrictions. And in any event, the school district should promptly issue an apology to the students in the class and their parents for the proselytization and antisemitism they experienced.
All of that ought to be simple for the district. It beats a lawsuit, that’s for damn sure. But if the district doesn’t take any real action, then the fact that a parent of a student raised these concerns in the first place means this could end up in a courtroom before long.