The West Virginia Senate is considering a bill, SB 252, that would allow public schools to offer classes that teach about the Bible. Under the U.S. Constitution, public schools may teach about the Bible, but there are strict requirements that courts have said the courses must meet – and experience shows that schools struggle to meet these requirements. Often, these Bible classes resemble Sunday school lessons, rather than public school courses. That is why Americans United sent a letter to the West Virginia Education Committee earlier today urging them to reject the bill.
Federal courts have said time and again that Bible courses must be taught from a secular, objective perspective. And the courses must be taught in a non-devotional manner, with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of biblical materials.
Unfortunately, SB 252 doesn’t mandate any of these things. Instead, the bill says that the courses must “follow applicable law . . . and federal and state guidelines,” leaving it completely up to the school or teacher to figure out exactly how to do that.
We know from experience that these classes usually end up violating the constitution. For example, last year, Kentucky passed a bill, HB 128, that is essentially identical to the West Virginia bill. And the classes taught in Kentucky have clearly been used to proselytize students. The ACLU examined classes across the state and found troubling results. Students were required to watch religious videos promoting Christianity, and it appeared classroom materials came from Sunday school websites. Kentucky’s experience should serve as a warning to West Virginia.
Under the U.S. Constitution, public schools may teach about the Bible, but there are strict requirements that courts have said the courses must meet – and experience shows that schools struggle to meet these requirements. Often, these Bible classes resemble Sunday school lessons, rather than public school courses.
It’s no surprise that the guidelines aren’t more rigorous when you see what the bill sponsor, Sen. Michael Azinger (R), said about it at a recent committee hearing. It appears he introduced this bill not so students could learn about the Bible’s influence on literature and art – but so that students would be taught religion.
Azinger said, “We live in an age of confusion in a lot of areas … This is a humanistic era where truth is relative . . . One thing the Bible does is it brings moral clarity.” And, he lamented that “removing” the Bible from public schools led to a “dramatic cause and effect in social ills.”
Luckily, Angela Mann, a principal in West Virginia, was on hand to answer some questions. She took the chance to point out that there are religious texts from a wide variety of religions, not just the Christian Bible, that people study and follow. She told Azinger that the “country was founded on religious freedom.” Mann is right, even if some in the West Virginia Senate want to ignore her. Religious freedom means that students and parents get to decide how and when to engage with religion, if at all.
Hopefully, the Education Committee will reject this bill. We’ll be watching to see if it passes, and we’ll fight it at every step. If you live in West Virginia, use our action alert to let your legislators know you oppose the bill also. But West Virginia isn’t the only state with a bill like this. Iowa and Alabama have introduced similar bills this year, and your state could be next. Make sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for our action alerts so you can lend your support to fighting these bills wherever the pop up.