Georgia’s Legislature on Monday passed a law allowing state funding for Bible classes in public schools.
The bill, passed by the Senate 45-2 after also receiving strong bipartisan support in the House, now goes to Gov. Sonny Perdue for signature. It would make Georgia the first state to require its Department of Education to develop a curriculum for teaching the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments as elective courses in high school.
Alabama and Missouri are considering similar laws, which proponents say are needed to help students to understand scriptural references that abound in literature, art and music. But critics say the trend is less concerned with the education of students than with getting around court rulings banning devotional Bible reading in schools and with politicizing religion.
Georgia’s law requires that Bible courses be taught “in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the biblical materials or texts from other religious or cultural traditions.”
It bars “teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible” and says Bible instruction must not “disparage or encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs.”
It also requires that the Bible itself be used as the basic textbook and uses terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” from the Christian Bible, causing some to argue it favors Christianity over other religions.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that government cannot require that passages from the Bible be read in public schools. Courts have ruled, however, that it is legal to teach about the Bible, as long it is nonsectarian and voluntary.
The National Council On Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, formed in 1993 with a goal of “bringing back Bible curriculum as an educational tool to public schools in all 50 states,” claims that 346 school districts in 37 states have used their curriculum, The Bible in History and Literature.
Elizabeth Ridenour, founder and president of the Greensboro, N.C.,-based NCBCPS, says God led her to do something about crime, divorce, drug use and illiteracy that arose after the Supreme Court tried to “kick the Bible out of school.”
Her 300-page curriculum, a teacher’s guide to be used with the Bible as the student textbook, is endorsed by groups and individuals including David Barton of WallBuilders, D. James Kennedy and the Center For Reclaiming America, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America and former Southern Baptist Convention presidents Charles Stanley and James Merritt.
Mark Chancey, a professor at Southern Methodist University, critiqued the curriculum as “a sectarian document” and said he would not recommend its use in public schools in a 36-page report for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group to counter the religious right.
Another group, the Bible Literacy Project, formed in 2001 to fight biblical illiteracy in public schools, has wider appeal.
Chuck Stetson’s The Bible and Its Influence, which came out in 2005, won endorsement of evangelical leaders including Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Vonette Bright, co-founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.
It also drew strong praise from Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, which in 1996 worked with the National Parent Teachers Association to develop A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, a pamphlet to help parents understand the religious rights of students and the appropriate role of religion in public schools.
In Alabama, two Democrats, House Majority Leader Ken Guin and House Speaker Seth Hammett, introduced legislation endorsing Stetson’s book, prompting a split with Republicans who accused Democrats of using the bill as an election-year ploy to gain favor with Christian voters, a bloc that voted strongly Republican in the last election.
Georgia’s bill also was introduced by Democrats, but Republicans quickly trumped it with a substitute measure.
A recent Washington Monthly article said Republican insiders were spreading the word to oppose Bible-education bills sponsored by Democrats, fearing they undermine efforts to portray the party as anti-faith.
The National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools blasted Stetson’s book as “anti-biblical,” “liberal” and said it promotes relativism by asking students questions like whether they think Adam and Eve received a “fair deal” from God in the story in Genesis.
Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said despite an impressive list of supporters, he also was “wary” of the Bible Literacy Project for several reasons.
“In the first place, there is something troubling about allowing a well-funded religious pressure group to initiate Bible classes in our public schools,” he said. “Public schools exist to serve the widest possible range of students from many faith perspectives and none. While the courts have never ruled against objective study about religion, involvement in that sensitive subject is always controversial. Red flags should go up when religious groups seek special classes for their holy scriptures.”
“The curriculum at public schools should be insulated as much as possible from political and religious intrigues,” Conn said. “While usually governed by elected school boards, public schools are not meant to be caught up in sectarian agendas.
“Public school textbooks should be produced by respected scholars in their various academic fields, not Religious Right ‘centurions’ fighting to present students with their ‘biblical worldview.’ When religious politics intrudes, the classroom can easily become subject to majoritarian pressures.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.