Bible Study in Public Schools Sought In New State Laws

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — March 17, 2016 2 min read
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New bills on the table in Kentucky and Idaho would pave the path for more study of the Bible in public schools.

In Idaho, the state’s senate approved a bill that would “expressly permit” schools to use the Bible for academic study, the Associated Press reports. It specifies that the Bible can be used in studies of history, literature, and the arts.

The bill in Kentucky would allow schools to offer Bible Literacy classes as an elective passed the state senate’s education committee earlier this month, the Courier-Journal reports.

According to Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University who has studied the use of the Bible in public schools, the bills won’t likely permit anything that’s not already technically permissible under state and federal law.

A 1963 Supreme Court ruling affirmed that, while public schools cannot teach devotional practices, they can teach about the Bible “when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

That hasn’t stopped states from staking out an additional legal place for the Bible in schools. According to Chancey, since 2000, about six states have passed laws that support the creation of Bible study courses: Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Six additional states have debated bills related to the Bible and schools over the same time period.

The Idaho bill has gone through several iterations. An early version of the bill specified that the Bible could be used as a reference in science classes, too. The most recent version adds that other religious texts, in addition to the Bible, can be used in public schools—a change that was added after Idaho’s attorney general released an opinion saying that a law that referred only to the Bible would not pass constitutional muster in the state.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the Anti-Defamation League came out against the Bible course bill, saying that Bible courses in public schools had often not stood up to challenges asserting that they violated the First Amendment. It also calls for teachers to receive training in the content they would be teaching.

In both states, lawmakers make the case that the Bible is part of the foundation of American culture and thus worth studying.

Chancey said that while there is often academic value to studying the Bible, using the Bible effectively in public schools is easier said than done. In his study of courses, a number of schools were teaching explicitly Protestant values in the courses and made claims that are explicitly false. For instance, some assert that the Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments.

As for the Kentucky bill, “you can see some good intentions in the bill, but implementation is more challenging than people realize,” Chancey said. He said that teachers often are unprepared to teach the text in a nondevotional fashion, and that textbooks often used in Bible study courses often blur the line between devotional and academic. “The words matter, but what matters more is what happens in the classroom.”

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