Decatur High School student Kurt Hughes wouldn't call himself religious. He's never even read the Bible.
But he wouldn't mind taking a class on the holy text if it were offered at his high school in Decatur, Ga. After all, "You look at 'The Old Man and the Sea,' 'King Arthur' and even 'The Matrix,' all have biblical allusions," the junior says. "It'd be useful to know exactly what's in it."
The Georgia legislature seems poised to endorse just such a course. Though students in many states enroll in classes related to the Bible, Georgia would become the first to require its Department of Education to put in place a curriculum to teach the history and literature of the Bible. Schools would use the book itself as the classroom textbook. Specifically the bill would establish electives on both the New and Old Testaments.
It has overwhelmingly passed both chambers, but needs a final vote on a minor House change. The vote is expected as early as Monday. If it passes, the state's Department of Education has a year to establish Bible elective courses in the curriculum.
In the late 1700s, Congress thought enough of the Bible as a textbook that it printed 40,000 copies. But the bold effort here in Georgia to use the Bible in today's secular curricula may be about presenting it as a moral code rather than a foundation to better understand the biblical allusions in literature, critics say.
"Behind this is the tension around the country about how to go about doing a Bible elective, and a lot is at stake," says Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.
The Bible is already being used as a course study in as many as 1,000 American high schools, according to the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools in Greensboro, N.C. The US Supreme Court allows it as long as it's presented objectively, and not taught as fact. But the Georgia legislature's unprecedented decision to wade into what is usually a school district initiative has created concerns.
For example, the bill's use of terms such as Old and New Testament reflect a Protestant bias, some critics say. After all, Catholics and Jews have different interpretations and names for the tome. "To pick one is to suggest that is the right Bible, which is a school district making a faith statement," says Judith Schaeffer, a lawyer for People For the American Way, which works to maintain the separation of church and state.
Others worry that this trend - Alabama and Missouri are also considering statewide Bible study classes - is part of the broader culture war over the role of religion in civic life, and seeks to satisfy social conservatives rather than enlighten students.
"This is a political issue as much as it is a religious issue," says Frances Paterson, a professor at Valdosta State University who specializes in religion and public education. "I would guess that [its sponsors] hope that nobody is going to police this, and when people step over the line, it's going to be ignored, either because nobody's aware of it or they'd be intimidated into not objecting."
Its sponsors insist the bill aims to help students gain broader understanding about the underpinnings of Western culture, from Michelangelo to Hemingway.
"The biggest misconception is that this teaches the Bible when, in fact, it uses the Bible as the primary text to teach a course in history and literature influenced by the Bible," says a spokesman for Sen. Tommie Williams (R), the bill's sponsor.
The Bible was the most quoted source for the Founding Fathers, Bible scholars say.
The "New England Primer," with its heavy reliance on scriptural texts to teach reading and comprehension, instructed all presidents until James Garfield, according to Kenyn Cureton, of the Southern Baptist Convention, who studies early textbooks in US history.
"It's amazing that we have jettisoned the Bible from the classroom when it is the foundation of the Republic," says Dr. Cureton, a spokesman for the Convention with headquarters in Nashville, Tenn.
Many parents, however, may object to using the Bible as a textbook since doing so may expose their children to the book's various interpretations and criticism, some say.
"A great many people in Georgia are conservative Protestants who take the Bible literally, and that's going to be a problem if you have an academic study of the Bible...." says Dr. Paterson.