Texas Bible courses: turning public schools into the local church

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday school classes are supposed to be on Sunday, but in some Texas public schools every day is the Lord’s Day.

According to a study released this week, “Reading, Writing and Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools,” most of the elective Bible courses currently offered in 25 Texas school districts are taught as “religious and devotional classes that promote one faith perspective over all others.”

The study was commissioned by the Texas Freedom Network, a civil liberties group that describes itself as a “nonpartisan, grassroots organization of more than 23,000 religious and community leaders.”

The revelation that so many Bible courses in Texas schools violate the First Amendment has national implications. It turns out that many of the offending courses are based on materials disseminated by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools – a group that claims its curriculum is now used in 365 school districts in 37 states. It’s hard to substantiate these numbers because the council won’t reveal where most of these courses are taught.

Even if that number is overstated, it’s very likely many of the Bible courses in other states are also unconstitutional. In some states, especially in the South, homegrown Bible courses are taught in public schools with little accountability and no oversight.

Under the guise of supporting academic study of the Bible, the council has been actively promoting Bible electives in public schools for more than a decade. But its approach is anything but “academic.” In a study published in 2005, the Texas Freedom Network found that the council’s curriculum advocates “a narrow sectarian perspective” and is filled with “shoddy research and blatant errors.” Although the council made some cosmetic changes in apparent response to criticism, the new study argues that the curriculum remains “deeply flawed and inappropriate.”

The author of both studies, biblical scholar Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, has nothing against Bible electives in public schools. In fact, he believes that taught within clear constitutional and educational guidelines such courses “can be an excellent and desirable way to help students understand the unique importance of the Bible in history and literature.”

But Chancey discovered that very few Texas districts with Bible courses applied the First Amendment ground rules. Most of the classes are taught by teachers with no academic training in religious or biblical studies and most present only a fundamentalist Protestant view of the Bible. In some districts, local clergy teach the course. Many of the teachers use instructional materials recommended by the Bible council, including videos that teach “creation science.”

Some of the Texas districts go so far as to teach students that the Bible is divinely inspired and “anyone who reads the Bible with open mind and heart is convinced that the Bible is God’s word to man” to quote a workbook used in one district. This is faith formation — the responsibility of families and religious communities. It has no place in a public school.

In a constitutional Bible course, students would study in an objective, nonsectarian manner how various Jewish and Christian groups interpret the Bible. They’d learn something about contemporary biblical scholarship, and discover how the Bible has influenced history and culture. (For more guidance on what is and isn’t constitutional, see (The Bible and Public Schools, published by the First Amendment Center and endorsed by 21 religious, civil liberties and educational organizations.)

According to the report, three Texas school districts do manage to get it right. One high school teaches a course focused on biblical influences on art, music, literature and politics in Western civilization (using a pre-publication version of the Bible Literacy Project’s new textbook, The Bible and Its Influence). Another school offers “Literature of the Bible,” using The Bible As/In Literature, a textbook published some years ago that has selections from the Bible along with readings from secular literature with biblical references and images.

But the Christian Right groups advocating Bible courses aren’t interested in the academic study of the Bible; they want the Bible taught their way or no way. And despite reports exposing their efforts as unconstitutional, stealth attempts to get their materials into public schools across the country continue unabated.

These efforts to push illegal Bible courses not only undermine religious freedom — they are also bad for religion. The last thing any Bible-believing person should want is state-sponsored Sunday-school classes.

If history is any guide, we know that the surest way to destroy authentic faith is to turn it over to the government.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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