Confusion reigns over Texas Bible-literacy law

Sunday, September 13, 2009

DALLAS — Some Texas school districts are scrambling to interpret a state law that requires public schools to incorporate Bible literacy into the curriculum.

The Legislature provided little guidance and no funding for materials or teacher training when it passed the law in 2007 requiring Bible literacy to be taught starting in the 2009-2010 school year.

The law doesn't require schools to offer a Bible course, although they can offer it as an elective, Attorney General Greg Abbott has said. However, schools must provide some sort of lessons, he said. The result is that some schools are offering elective classes, while others are embedding Bible literacy into current courses.

Religious scholars and confused educators warn that the nebulous law may have thwarted its purpose — to examine the Bible's influence in history and literature. To ensure religious neutrality, legislators mandated teacher training, state-approved materials and curriculum standards that the attorney general considered adequate. However, lawmakers did not specify what that training would include or provide funding.

The state Board of Education provided little additional guidance. It said the curriculum for independent studies classes in English and social studies already covered the biblical material. Texas Education Agency officials said they did not request funding because materials and training were already covered for those two courses.

“This unfunded mandate to teach more about the Bible is a recipe for confusion in Texas classrooms,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “Bible literacy is important, but public school teachers need guidance on how to teach about the Bible in ways that are both constitutionally and educationally sound.”

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, blames the education agency for the confusion.

“TEA had the duty to prepare teachers to teach the course, but they neglected to request funds,” he said. “I assumed the funds were there.”