Bible Study Bill Kicks Up Controversy in N.D.

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 16, 2019 2 min read
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A bill that would establish Bible study courses in North Dakota public schools has already attracted the ire of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill would alter the state’s high school curriculum guidelines, requiring every high school to offer as an elective a half-unit of Bible study—either Old Testament, New Testament, or a combination. It would also allow high schools to replace a half-unit of social studies with Bible studies.

The bill has yet to move out of the state Senate’s education committee. But the ACLU of North Dakota pointed out that the proposal appears to fall afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion.

“To withstand constitutional requirements, Bible curriculum in public schools must be neutral and non-devotional, and classes cannot be used to promote one particular religion,” the ACLU wrote on its blog. “Attempting to implement a Bible curriculum like this is very likely to expose a school district to litigation.”

The key U.S. Supreme Court case the ACLU is referring to here is the 1963 Abington School District v. Schepp ruling. The court held that students couldn’t be required to recite prayers or engage in devotional study in public schools, but religious texts could be included in the curriculum “when taught objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

Sen. Aaron McWilliams, a republican who co-sponsored the North Dakota bill, told the Grand Forks Herald that he would offer an amendment to allow schools the flexibilty to offer the course or not.

Other states that have sought to introduce secular biblical studies have found it tricky to find the right balance between secular and religious study. Kentucky, which approved Bible literacy legislation in 2017, soon ran afoul of the ACLU there, after the organization found through open-records requests that many of the assignments were more suited to Sunday school than to a public school classroom.

And Texas has gotten perilously close to the line with a history state standard that requires Moses and “Judeo-Christian thought” to be taught as an influence on the Founding Fathers, something many historians dispute. The state has allowed schools to offer biblical literature since 2007, and one of the state school board members has repeatedly argued that the words “separation of Church and state” don’t appear in the Constitution.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.