The Good Book Taught Wrong

That was the title of a People For the American Way Foundation report in 2000 documenting the appalling ways that the Bible was being taught in Florida public schools. (Actual test question:  ” Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?”)  But “The Good Book Taught Wrong” would also certainly be the end result if a Texas bill to require that school districts offer Bible classes becomes law.

Under the headline “Bible Belt Refuses to Buckle under on Religious Courses,” the Family Research Council celebrates a bill introduced by Texas Rep. Warren Chisum that would require every school district in the state to offer elective high school Bible classes.

The committee considering the legislation held its hearing on the first day of Passover.  A letter from People For the American Way, which testified against the legislation, spells out the myriad legal problems with the bill, including sectarian language and a failure to require or fund any teacher training, in spite of the enormous difficulties of teaching about the Bible in a constitutional manner in a public school.  Without that kind of training, even in a properly designed course it’s likely some classes would be more like Sunday School than the kind of objective course required by the Supreme Court for teaching about the Bible in public schools.

In fact, a recent study by Southern Methodist University biblical studies professor Mark Chancey conducted for the Texas Freedom Network found that of 25 school districts offering Bible courses in Texas in 2005-2006, only three were doing it right. One district included Veggie Tales videos. Another included a PowerPoint presentation, “God’s Roadway For Your Life,” with slides proclaiming “Jesus Christ is the one and only way.”

The North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools exists to push this kind of legislation, and continues to falsely claim that “we’ve never been legally challenged.” In fact, a curriculum written by the NCBCPS lost a legal challenge in Florida and a number of school districts have declined proposals to adopt the NCBCPS courses when they get the facts.

Chisum’s bill would require every one of the 1,031 school districts in Texas to come up with their own classes, with the Bible – any version or translation – as the textbook.   On one hand, Chisum insists that the classes would be purely secular in nature:

“We’re not going to preach the Bible, we’re going to teach the Bible and how it affects all of our writings, documents and the formation of our government,” Mr. Chisum said. “We’re taking it as a document that has historical value.”

But Chisum’s explanation for what he’s trying to achieve does imply a bit of preaching:

 “I would hope that we get a better-prepared student to go out into the world and understand what they believe, … how it’s [this country] put together, why we are different from some others on this planet.”

The United States doesn’t have more resources, he said, “but we do better. A lot of it’s because of what’s written in that book, because we have a moral standard. Not everybody has a moral standard.”

And Rep. Leo Berman, a joint author of the bill, seems to have an even more overtly religious purpose in mind:

Representative Leo Berman says, “Today, with Christian symbols being taken out of everything, off our county squares, manger scenes, crosses, I think it’s time that we put something back, and give kids who want to study the Old and New Testament an option on campus to actually elect that to study.”

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the separation of church and state. In fact, the First Amendment to the Constitution actually calls on the United States Congress to make sure, to ensure that people are allowed to practice their religion,” says Berman.

If Chisum’s bill passes, it’s likely that school officials across the state would be forced to invest scarce school district funds defending themselves from a wave of litigation that would put Rep. Berman’s theory about church-state separation to a challenging legal test.