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Should the Bible be taught in public schools? That’s the question at the crux of a controversy as legislators in nearly a dozen states have put forth bills to allow Bible classes, with three states passing laws to that effect.
The classes are supposed to be purely academic, but they’re part of a larger conservative initiative that critics say is promoting a Christian worldview in a country where Muslim shopkeepers in Dallas are equally as American as the cattle ranchers on the plains of middle Georgia.
“We understand the line and we take it very seriously,” says Jamie Davis, a pastor who teaches the Bible to middle schoolers for academic credit in Cochran, Georgia.
The Supreme Court banned school-sponsored Bible readings, such as reading scriptural passages during daily announcements, in 1963. However, the ruling also left the door open to a purely academic study of the Bible, as long as it’s “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” The battle over today’s Bible classes is being fought over whether they follow that guideline, or instead impose a particular religious viewpoint on students in public schools.
“What does holy mean?” asks Jamie Davis, a local youth pastor in Cochran, Georgia.
The seventh graders, their faces lit through stained-glass windows of biblical scenes at Bethany Baptist Church, go silent. The word is of course everywhere in the Bible, which they are here to study for academic credit. Though half of the students are regular church-goers, they are all stumped.
“It means set apart,” says Mr. Davis.
That notion of holy as separate is at the crux of a growing controversy around Bible literacy classes that are springing up in public schools around the country – or offered in coordination with the school system, as here in Cochran.
In 2019, 13 bills promoting Bible elective classes have been proposed in 11 states, with three states – Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia – signing bills into law. The classes are supposed to be purely academic, but they’re part of a larger conservative initiative that critics say is promoting a Christian worldview in a country where Muslim shopkeepers in Dallas are equally as American as the cattle ranchers here on the plains of middle Georgia.
The legislative flurry is resurfacing a decades-old debate about what role – if any – the world’s best-selling book should play in American public schools. As in the past, it centers around strongly held views of the importance of the Bible to American cultural identity that clash with opponents’ desire to be inclusive of those of differing – or no – faith.
But religious conservatives are driven by a new sense of urgency as they perceive their values to be sidelined or even denigrated by increasingly mainstream progressive views, and they sense a political opening with the election of President Donald Trump and his public support for Bible literacy classes.
“This issue has a certain type of cycle to it. It never disappears completely,” says Steven Green, a professor of law and history at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and author of “The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine.”
“I think it’s because we do have certain members of the community in the United States … who feel their vision of what the United States represents is under threat and is being challenged,” he says.
Part of a larger legislative campaign
Of particular concern to opponents is the fact that these Bible literacy laws are part of a bundle of model legislation prepared for lawmakers by conservative groups, led by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.
Originally dubbed Project Blitz, the legislative campaign includes other bills promoting the display of “In God We Trust” in public buildings, proclamations recognizing Christian Heritage Week, resolutions favoring marriage defined as between a man and a woman, and bills protecting licensed professionals such as florists and cake bakers from being sued for turning down work that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Mark Chancey, a professor of religion at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says the campaign “privilege[s] the civil rights of the Christian right above those of everyone else.”
Supporters of the Bible elective bills point to the many references or allusions to the Bible by authors from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison, the use of biblical language such as “an eye for an eye” and “David and Goliath” in popular culture, and the impact the Bible has had on a wide range of fields.
“We believe that understanding the Bible is a really important part of cultural literacy, especially in the West and especially in the United States,” says Steven Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation, the organization that drafted the model Bible class bills. “You don’t teach it in an evangelistic way, but to understand art and music and history, you really need that kind of background.”
In response to criticism over the model legislation initiative, Mr. Fitschen says it touches on “issues that were very much in the forefront of the news and things that legislators in the states were figuring out how to handle and we were offering our view on how to address these things constitutionally.”
A majority of Americans support Bible electives, but ...
The legality of teaching the Bible in public schools has undergone a series of court rulings and continues to ignite intense reactions ever since two major Supreme Court rulings limited the scope of religion in schools.
In the famous 1962 Engel v. Vitale case, the court ruled school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional. A year later, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the court banned school-sponsored Bible readings, such as reading scriptural passages during daily announcements.
However, the majority opinion in the Abington decision also included a statement opening the door to a purely academic study of the Bible, as long as it’s “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
Indeed, a smattering of Bible-related classes endured in public schools across the country. For example, Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, offers an elective class on “The Bible and Mythology.” Hamilton County Public Schools in Tennessee has offered Bible elective classes on Genesis, Revelation, and the Old and New Testaments since 1922.
A 2019 poll by the professional educator association PDK found that 58% of American adults surveyed said public schools should offer Bible studies as an elective, and 77% of adults supported offering comparative religion classes – but 4 in 10 Americans “express concern that Bible studies may improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.”
Professor Chancey, at SMU, says one of the “great ironies” about the proposed Bible class bills is that there is no need for new legislation for schools to teach the Bible in an academic manner – the Supreme Court has already given leeway for that. But he cautions that it’s “hard to teach these courses in that way.”
In 2006 and again in 2012, Professor Chancey was commissioned by the Texas Freedom Network to examine the Bible elective classes offered in Texas, which passed a law in 2007 encouraging school districts to offer such classes. He found substantial evidence of legal and academic problems with many of the courses, including teaching from a religious perspective. While his second report noted some improvement, he wrote that most classes were of a “mixed quality” and some were “blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage[d] students to adopt those views.”
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a faith-based group that advocates for religious freedom for all, says many of the recent Bible class measures have been “carefully crafted to have constitutional muster at least on their face, but they can still be harmful.”
“I think it sends a problematic message that to be a full or true American one must be Christian,” she says.
Ms. Tyler also raises concerns about states showing a religious preference through selection of the Bible translation used in class, or not providing funding for training teachers how to teach the Bible appropriately.
“Usually they use Sunday school curriculum,” says Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, referencing an ACLU report about Bible courses in Kentucky. “They recruit from Sunday schools to find teachers, and teachers end up teaching with a bias toward their own religious perspectives.”
Best student in Bible class: a self-proclaimed atheist
Back in Cochran, a large billboard on the edge of town proclaims, “Jesus is Lord.” A piece of folk art not far away shows a wooden U.S.-style flag with a Christian cross where the 50 stars usually are.
Some 42% of people in the surrounding Bleckley County are religious, with a quarter of the population attending Baptist churches, according to Sperling’s BestPlaces, which draws from a wide variety of data, including the census. Jews and Muslims make up 0.0% of those living within the county’s 219 square miles.
But there are plenty with no faith. Mr. Davis, the teacher, says that his favorite student so far was a high schooler last year who identified as an atheist. “This student was super smart, he asked the best questions, and he was here to honestly try to understand, discuss, and learn,” he says.
Mr. Davis is a pastor and the class is run by the Bleckley Christian Learning Center, whose homepage quotes the verse from Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.” But he says he recognizes First Amendment concerns.
“We understand the line and we take it very seriously,” says Mr. Davis. Even though the Georgia legislature allows Bible literacy classes to be taught inside public schools, he notes that “none of this particular program is funded by taxpayers. The school simply releases the students to us with the parents’ permission. It is strictly non-denominational.”
There is also a physical delineation here in Cochran. A small country road separates the school from the church. A school resource officer walks the class out of the school building and stops traffic on Country Club Road as they cross and enter the church.
Lila Dykes is one of the students who crosses the road several times a week to attend “Bible class,” as she calls it.
A seventh grader, she throws herself enthusiastically into a class skit about integrity – framed as a conundrum over whether to take her mom’s change while she is sleeping to run outside to buy a treat from an ice cream truck.
Lila says she likes the skits and the conversation. But mostly she likes to think about how her own spiritual faith differs from how the Bible influences secular life.
“It is about stepping outside of church and looking at the Bible in a different way,” she says. “It’s actually really fun.”