A wave of “Bible literacy” bills emerging in state legislatures would allow more students in public high schools to study the Old and New Testaments.
Proposals from lawmakers in at least six states would require or encourage public schools to offer elective classes on the Bible’s literary and historical significance. That’s a more narrow focus than what’s typically covered in courses on world religions.
Some of the lawmakers – and leaders of Christian groups supporting the bills – say they want to restore traditional values in schools and provide students with an opportunity to study the religious text deeply.
“The Bible is an integral part of our society and deserves a place in the classroom,” said Republican state Rep. Aaron McWilliams of North Dakota, a co-sponsor of a bill that would require the state’s public high schools to offer an elective on Bible studies.
But critics say the measures come perilously close to violating the constitutional line between church and state – and in practice, might overstep it. They say the proposals are part of a coordinated effort by evangelical political groups pushing model legislation in several states.
State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Done right, the bills are legal
So far this year, Bible literacy bills have been introduced in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the ACLU.
At least three Bible literacy bills were considered in 2018 – in Alabama, Iowa and West Virginia – but none passed, according to the ACLU. Tennessee passed a related but slightly different bill.
The year before, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law a Bible studies bill. It created guidelines for public high schools to offer electives on the literature of the Bible and Hebrew Scriptures.
More about Kentucky’s law: State ed board approves Bible literacy standards for public schools
Laser said the Bible studies classes are likely to convey a religious message and preference. That would violate the First Amendment, which guarantees that the government won’t act in a way that prefers one religion over another, and that people can practice whatever religion they wish.
In short, there’s a line in public schools between teaching about a religion and proselytizing. Lawmakers bringing the proposals say the classes can be taught in a way that doesn’t overstep that line
The proposals are getting more attention because recent reports have linked them to a common source: an initiative called Project Blitz coordinated by conservative Christian political groups.
Those groups include the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which aims to protect religious liberties; the National Legal Foundation, a Christian public-interest law firm; and WallBuilders, a nonprofit that emphasizes the “moral, religious and constitutional foundation upon which America was built,” according to its website. WallBuilders’ name is a biblical reference to grassroots work and does not refer to the debate over the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Critics say the groups are trying to reshape America by cementing pro-Christian messages in public schools.