bible literacy public schools nonreligious
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The devil, as always, is in the details.

But make no mistake, so-called “Bible literacy” classes trending at the moment in American public schools are Trojan Horses that often primarily seek to sneak evangelical Christian ideology into classrooms unnoticed.

At least six states — Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia — are considering legislation this year to allow public schools to offer Bible literacy classes, reported.

A surge in legislation

A number of other states, including Texas, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona already offer such courses, most passing relevant laws in the 2000s, and their experiences highlight the problems associated with bringing any religion but especially Christianity into classrooms. Christianity is the religion of the vast majority of Americans, and the Constitution explicitly prohibits government — which includes schools — from promoting religion in general or favoring any one faith. Some states, like North Carolina, give school credit for religious classes taken off school campuses.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also very hard to objectively teach a course on the Bible without even inadvertently proselytizing.

This has become an issue since the U.S. Supreme Court in the Abington Township School District v. Schempp case ruled in 1963 that requiring the reading of Bible verses each day at a public school is unconstitutional. But the justices added that while,

“… it certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

This means that to be constitutional Bible courses must not veer from objectivity to indoctrinating children in the truth or untruth of the biblical materials.

Looking between the covers

After the Texas legislature in 2007 passed a bill allowing the state’s school districts to offer “elective courses on the Bible’s Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament,” the church-state-separation group Texas Freedom Network (TFN) asked a religious studies professor — Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist university in Dallas — to examine some of the new Bible classes being taught under the bill’s auspices.

Chancey’s research into Bible courses 57 school districts and three charter schools revealed these classes to be a “mixed bag,” with some offering objective instruction while others “seemed to have veered wildly off course,” according to an article titled “Teaching or Preaching?” in Church & State, the magazine of Americans United Against Church and State (AU).

In one of his reports, “Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses In 2011-2012,” Chancey wrote:

“Unfortunately, the courts have provided little detailed guidance on how to achieve the level of neutrality presumed in such language. As a result, confusion about how to teach appropriately about religion is common. Intentionally or not, Bible courses are often taught from religious perspectives, with the result that some students find their own beliefs endorsed in the classroom while others find theirs disparaged or ignored. To complicate matters further, some groups and individuals have attempted to skirt the law by surreptitiously inserting their own religious beliefs into curricula.”

‘Giving God His rightful place’

For example, Chancey noted in his research that in Texas’ Belton Independent School District’s Bible program students were provided a pamphlet titled “One Nation Under God” that asserted:

“The United States was founded on the principles of liberty in the Holy Bible and the reverence of the Founding Fathers. … Giving God His rightful place in the national life of this country has provided a rich heritage for all its citizens. Yet, wonderful as the benefits of that heritage may be, a true relationship to God is not a matter of national declaration but rather the personal responsibility of each individual citizen. … Would you like to place your trust in Jesus Christ and receive Him as your Savior from Sin?”

Chancey found some districts’ Bible classes were assigning the book Heaven is for Real, which tells the apocryphal story of a 3-year-old boy who purportedly visits heaven during a near-death experience. Other districts assign proselytizing Christian films produced by evangelical organizations.

So much for objectivity.

Americans United CEO Rachel Laser, in an interview with USA Today, warned:

“State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren.”

Project Blitz. Beware!

Of added concern, AU reports, is that the current push on legislatures for Bible literacy classes is being spearheaded by Project Blitz, an aggressive Christian Right organization. AU stresses that the organization,

“… is part of a larger national trend to redefine religious liberty as a sword used to harm others instead of a shield that protects people. Its organizers’ strategy is to pass an increasingly ambitious set of state laws, starting with bills that require prominently displaying “In God We Trust” and establishing Bible classes in public schools and escalating to laws that would permit religion to be used to justify discrimination.”

The disconnect between Supreme Court rulings regarding Bible teaching in schools and American lawmakers’ understanding of “objectivity” in that context is encapsulated in this statement from Florida GOP Rep. Brad Drake, who gave this reason for sponsoring a Bible literacy bill:

“A study of a book of creation by its creator is absolutely essential. So why not? It’s the book that prepares us for eternity, and there’s no other book that does that.”

Notice no legislature has introduced a bill to allow the objective teaching of the “absolutely essential” holy books of other religions.

And President Trump has made the issue inherently political by tweeting a shout-out Jan. 28 to evangelicals and legislators:

“Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

Back to the future, so to speak.

As I said, the devil is in the details.


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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...