A proposed law in Oklahoma would allow fundamentalist Christian preachers to teach the KJV Bible in public schools, creating a new venue for indoctrination.
SB 1161, prefiled on Monday by State Senator George Burns, would amend existing law to require an elective Bible course to use only the King James Version of the Bible — i.e. one that Catholics typically don’t use but fundamentalist Baptists love — while also expanding the possible teachers for this course to include clergy members who have no background in education. It would also require any school offering this course to have a copy of the KJV Bible in its library.
To put that another way, Oklahoma already gives public schools the opportunity to offer elective courses dealing with the Bible’s impact on literature, culture, and more. Still not satisfied with that, Burns wants to create a pathway for Christian fundamentalism specifically to make its way into public schools.
The history of this course
In 2010, Oklahoma passed a law that allowed public school districts to offer high school students an elective course teaching students about the Old Testament, New Testament, or both. The newly created Section 11-103.11 of Title 70 made clear that such a course would abide by “religious neutrality” rules and “not endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective.” In English, that meant this was not church. Teachers could not say the Bible was true. The focus was on the Bible’s content and impact on culture. That wiggle room made it harder to go after in court and several states have similar statutes on the books.
The class would also have to be taught by someone “certified to teach social studies or literature.”
Importantly, that law also made clear that students “shall not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text.” Any Bible would do.
The law wasn’t without its problems, though. In 2014, one Oklahoma school district adopted a specific Bible curriculum developed by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green. When the Freedom From Religion Foundation got a copy of the proposed textbook for the course, they alerted the district that the content “show[ed] a clear Christian bias, treat[ed] the bible as historically accurate and true in all respects, and [made] theological claims.” The district later dropped the course, possibly due to the legal liability. (The district cited the fact that Hobby Lobby wouldn’t agree to provide legal coverage to the school district in the event of a lawsuit as one reason for rejecting its curriculum.)
The point is: The 2010 law, despite its clear language against religious indoctrination, wasn’t going to stop Christians from trying to promote their religion in school anyway.
In response to that controversy, a proposed bill in 2015 would have shielded all school districts from lawsuits regarding the Bible class. That bill, thankfully, didn’t go anywhere.
The proposed bill
The current bill would modify the existing law in ways that just raise all kinds of red flags.
As I said earlier, the changes (underlined in the official bill text below) include:
- Requiring the King James Version of the Bible to become the official text for the course (basically pushing one particular version of the Bible on all students even though plenty of Christian denominations don’t use that version). Other texts would be acceptable for use in class but not as a replacement to the KJV.
- Changing the teacher requirement to allow ordained preachers with no educational training to teach the course (which offers no education benefit to students but creates a way for church leaders to get inside the classroom).
- Forcing districts offering these courses to carry the KJV Bible in their libraries (effectively micromanaging the job of school librarians who already have systems in place to decide which books they need).
There’s just no reason to make any of these changes other than promoting a fundamentalist form of Christianity in public school. There’s no educational benefit, that’s for damn sure.
This is the sort of bill you’d only propose because you live in a predominantly Republican state where Christian Nationalism is just a way of life, not because you actually want to help people. With no other religion would any of this even be considered.
It’s also the logical conclusion of having this kind of Bible-as-an-elective type of class at all. Whenever they’re proposed, church/state separation advocates are quick to warn about how the classes are part of a larger right-wing plan to inject religion into the school system. Lawmakers often try to calm the criticism with caveats about how the classes must be taught objectively… even though there are plenty of stories about how teachers have crossed the line. But you can see from the initial versions of this particular law that there are passages that ought to alleviate critics’ concerns.
Burns doesn’t care about any of that. He’s doing exactly what all the critics said the Christian Right would do. He’s trying to get preachers in the classroom and his personal brand of Christianity adopted as the proper form of Christianity.
What Burns has said
As of this writing, Burns hasn’t said anything publicly about this bill, as far as I can tell. His official Facebook page hasn’t posted any updates about it. Ironically, his campaign page from last year includes this post about how he’s the husband of a teacher and a strong “supporter of public education.”
If he actually supported public education, then putting non-educators in the classroom to teach a specific form of religious indoctrination wouldn’t be on the agenda. But he’s a Republican; promoting Christian Nationalism is what they do, no matter what they say to the contrary.
Also worth noting is that Burns is a member of Lukfata Baptist Church, which says very clearly on its website that “The King James Version of the Bible shall be the official and only translation used by this church.” Burns isn’t proposing his bill because it’d be good for the students; he’s doing it because it’d be good for his church.
Burns was first elected to the state legislature in 2020, in a comfortably red district, after he beat his Republican primary opponent by a scant 22 votes out of over 4,100 cast in that race. I’m not saying that other guy would’ve been much different, but elections matter.
A request to Burns for comment about his proposed bill went unanswered.