Course Correction: Ark. Legislators Should Rethink Bible Class Promotion

Without guidance from professional educators who have no theological axe to grind, classes about the Bible in Arkansas' schools could easily end up being Sunday School lessons on steroids

Texas legislators got the bright idea in 2007 to pass legislation encouraging public school districts to begin offering courses about the Bible. Although objective academic study of religion is constitutionally permissible in public schools, Americans United was suspicious.

Indeed, it hasn’t worked out so well. Reports issued by the Texas Freedom Network indicate that many of the classes are anchored in fundamentalist Christianity. Some promote creationism, the Religious Right’s inaccurate version of American history and even the idea that modern-day racial differences are the result of descent from the three sons of Noah.

Now it appears that Arkansas lawmakers are determined to go down the same misguided path.

The Arkansas House of Representatives yesterday passed House Bill 1017, a measure that directs education officials to approve elective Bible courses in public schools. Allegedly, the courses will have to meet certain academic standards.

Again, AU is just a bit skeptical. We were told the same thing in Texas as well. The classes were supposed to be objective and offer real academic content. In fact, the Lone Star State allocated no money for teacher training or curriculum development. As a result, lots of teachers are just flying by the seat of their pants.

One high school teacher in Abilene, Texas, was perhaps too frank when he told a local newspaper, “It would be nice to have some training and some guidance, but I'll just have to wing it on my own. I'll make it up as I go.”

This is not a recipe for success. Yet it’s the one Arkansas legislators seems intent on following.

Phyllis Stewart, an official with the Arkansas Department of Education, told the Associated Press that she believes the bill doesn’t change things much. Stewart said school districts are already permitted to offer Bible classes and said the measure does “almost nothing.”

I’m not so sure about that. Putting the state on record as officially favoring the courses may prod some districts to implement Bible classes. Without guidance from professional educators who have no theological axe to grind, the classes could easily end up being Sunday School lessons on steroids.

Just to be clear, legitimate instruction about religion is permissible in public schools. The Supreme Court made this clear in 1963 in the school prayer case Abington School District v. Schempp.

In that landmark ruling, Justice Tom Clark observed, “[I]it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

Unfortunately, as the Texas experience indicates, that’s not what goes on in many of these courses. In Texas, the default assumption is often that the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is correct. There is no comparative religion by reading other religious texts and no serious examination of the many perspectives of how the Bible came to be. (I’m trying to imagine the reaction in Texas if a teacher introduced the school of “higher criticism” favored by many theologians.)

Given the dearth of decent curriculum materials for Bible courses, a better approach is to incorporate religion into the curriculum when it’s appropriate. There would be ample opportunities to do this in history courses, and in English classes, teachers could discuss biblical allusions in novels, short stories and poems.  

The Arkansas Bible bill passed by a lopsided vote of 79-3. Here’s hoping the Arkansas Senate is a little more deliberative and puts the brakes on this misguided measure.