Aug 19, 2009

Texas is headed for more shootouts over church-state separation, pardner!

In 2007, the legislature passed a law encouraging public school districts to offer elective courses on the Old and New Testaments   and "their impact on the history and literature of Western civilization."

H.B. 1287 requires that the courses follow "applicable law and all federal and state guidelines in maintaining religious neutrality" and not "endorse, favor, or promote" any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective.

But, of course, the legislature allotted no money to train teachers in how to offer religiously neutral instruction about the Bible. So you can imagine how all this is going to work out when the classes begin this school year.

The federal courts have indicated that academic study about the Bible is constitutional at appropriate points in the curriculum. But we all know that the Texas legislature did not act out of concern for better academics. This was initiated as a shameless scheme to appease the Religious Right and curry favor with conservative Christian voters.

The bill's original sponsor was Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa), an ardent advocate of Religious Right causes. Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network calls him "a one-man wrecking ball trying to tear down the wall separating church and state." You may remember the February 2007 stunt when Chisum distributed a memo arguing that evolution can't be taught in public schools because it is based on "rabbinic writings" and the "Pharisee religion."

In an interview yesterday with Houston's KTRH Radio, I said, "The legislature is asking the schools to take on something that's very controversial, and they've given them almost no guidance in how to do it right. So they're asking for lawsuits against public schools across the state."

As our friends over at Blog from the Capital noted yesterday, one teacher has already indicated what's to come.

Eric Thaxton at Wylie High School told the Abilene Reporter-News, "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."

Texas has hundreds of churches and other houses of worship, and they are ready, willing and able to teach the Bible to anyone who asks. We ought not demand that public schools take on that job, a task that they are ill-equipped to do.

The reason we have some 2,000 different denominations and faith groups in America is that people read the Bible -- and other scriptures in other traditions -- and come to very, very different conclusions about them. The legislature is asking public schools to undertake an impossible task that can better be done by religious leaders.

What is it about Texas?

The Lone Star State just emerged from an embarrassing battle at the state school board over evolution, and it's now moving into an embarrassing battle over the role of religion in social studies and history courses.

Now we can add embarrassing battles around the state over Bible classes.

The mainstream media seems to think the Religious Right is dead. We need to give reporters a plane ticket to Texas. Maybe that will wake them up.