Backdoor Evangelism?: Chino Church Pushes Bible Class Into Public Schools

Should churches make decisions about the courses taught in local public schools?

Most Americans would probably say no. But that’s exactly what seems to be happening in the Chino Valley (Calif.) School District.

According to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the school board there  has approved a Bible class for high school students after a lobbying campaign by Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, a fundamentalist mega-church. Members of the congregation, which is aligned with the Religious Right, packed the board meeting and demanded that the course be approved.

Some supporters of the new class tried to pretend that their goal is academic, not evangelistic, but their real aim kept showing through.

Calvary Chapel member Kim Yergensen, for example, said, “The Bible is where we get our laws and where we get our difference between good and evil. Children need to be taught that at an early age and on through life.”

Church pastor Jack Hibbs said the course’s emphasis would be literary and historical. But he added, “Wherever the Bible is and wherever people are introduced to the concept of God, morality increases, the value of life increases, women's rights are elevated and there's been a historical plus regarding the doctrines, the teachings and the influence of the Bible wherever it has been introduced. We're very excited."

When the school board voted to approve the class, the church-dominated crowd burst into applause.

Some board members made remarks that indicated a religious agenda.

According to One News Now, the American Family Association’s right-wing news service, School Board Vice President James Na said, “[The Bible] will bring greatness in students’ lives. I would like to thank God and Christian parents who are going to support this class.”

Superintendent Wayne Joseph claims school officials will make sure “we don't have teachers who are proselytizing religion, but conversely we don't have teachers who are debunking or debasing the Bible.

“If the teachers teach this correctly, there will be no problem,” Joseph said. “I want to make sure my [high school principals] pick the right kind of teachers to implement this course.”

The Daily Bulletin says the school will use as its textbook, The Bible and its Influence. (Textbooks for the class will be paid for by the church.) That book is the product of Religious Right activist Chuck Stetson, but no court has held its use to be unconstitutional. The volume has some significant problems, but it has the backing of a fairly broad spectrum of experts.

I hope school officials follow through on their promise to teach this course objectively and in accordance with fundamental constitutional principles. The courts have never said the Constitution bars academic study about religion, but it seems to me that the situation in the Chino Valley is fraught with legal pitfalls. Local parents and others who care about church-state separation should keep a close eye on the situation.

Public schools should not offer religion classes at the behest of sectarian interest groups. I wonder what Hibbs and Calvary Chapel would say if Muslims demanded a course in the Quran or Hindus insisted on an elective for the Bhagavad Gita. Hibbs and his flock would hit the roof, and we all know it.

Who was it who said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you”? Probably some fuzzy-thinking “social justice” liberal.