The story Juniper Russo related was downright shocking: Her daughter’s public school “Bible History” course had devolved into a vehicle for Christian proselytism.
Juniper’s daughter, a middle-school student in Chattanooga, Tenn., had signed up for an elective course called “Bible History.” Although the Russos are Jewish, they assumed the class taught by a public school would be objective and balanced.
But they say it wasn’t.
“Despite being supposedly taught from a non-sectarian point of view, the entire class has been nothing but blatant Christian proselytizing,” Russo wrote on Facebook last month. She noted that the teacher told students a story about an atheist student who took a similar Bible class elsewhere to “prove [the Bible] wrong” and later ended up “realizing it was true.”
Continued Russo, “My daughter showed me a copy of a test question where she was asked to mark the statement, ‘It is important to read the Bible even if you are not Christian or Jewish, as true or false, with her answer of ‘false’ marked as incorrect. Any competent educator knows that an opinion statement cannot be categorized ‘true or false,’ and that grading students on whether their opinion matches the teacher’s is unethical.”
Russo reported to AU that her daughter’s class watched videos by The Bible Project, an organization that proselytizes for fundamentalist Christianity. One animated video showed a forked road, “with Christianity represented by light, sunshine, and color on one side, and all other global religions represented by storms, darkness, and shadows on the other,” she wrote.
Other features of the course include:
- Biblical stories and Christian doctrine taught as facts, such as the existence of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, that the Earth was created in seven days, and that the Bible was written by prophets who were directly spoken to by God.
- Students were required to transcribe Bible verses daily, such as Psalm 3:3: “But you, O LORD, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high.”
On Feb. 9, AU’s legal team sent a detailed letter to officials in the Hamilton County public school system, warning them that that class, as currently taught, is blatantly unconstitutional.
“Simply put, this class is not academic study of the Bible; it is a Sunday-school class,” AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith wrote to school officials. “There is no academic discussion of any of the material, instead it is bare recitation of devotional Biblical stories and memorization of proselytizing passages. Christianity is endorsed and other religions are mocked and denigrated. All of this is a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser put it bluntly in a media statement: “Our country’s foundational promise of church-state separation means that all children should be treated equally and feel included in our public schools. What happened to Juniper Russo’s daughter and her classmates was unconscionable.”
Russo also reported that the teacher of the class wrote on a white board an English transliteration of the Hebrew name of God, which many Jews do not speak out loud, and told the students, “If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud.”
The school district responded that, after an investigation, it had “determined the following concerning the teacher’s alleged use of the word ‘torture’ during a lesson surrounding the Hebrew name of God on Ferbuary 2. … The teacher made a reference to the fact that Jewish people do not say the Hebrew name of God as represented and, in essence, that to hear or say that word would be a torturous or difficult experience for them. …We cannot conclude that the teacher intended to actually instruct her students about how to ‘torture’ a Jewish person. …While it does not appear that the statement was intended to cause offense, it did.”
The teacher issued her own statement: “I am personally offended by the statements that have been attributed to me, and I unequivocally deny making them. I did not utter antisemitic remarks.”
Russo replied on Facebook that she is dismayed at the effort “to convince people that a shy 13-year-old girl fabricated all of this with no motive.”
The controversy about this is a completely unsurprising result of inclusion of a Bible class like Hamilton County’s in a public school curriculum. Indeed, AU noted that this is not the first time Hamilton County schools have had difficulties with this class. A federal court struck down an earlier version the district had offered in 1980.
In that case, Wiley v. Franklin, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Tennessee concluded that “the intent and purpose of the lessons would be to convey a religious message rather than to convey a literary or historical message,” and that “the primary effect of the lessons would be to promote religious beliefs, and not to convey biblical literacy, historical, or social incidents, themes, or information in a non-religious or secular manner.”
Unfortunately, problems with public school classes that purport to be “about the Bible” and its influence on history, art and literature aren’t limited to Tennessee. Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, examined several of these courses in Texas in 2013 and found that many of them were problematic.
In a report released by the Texas Freedom Network, Chancey noted a host of problems. Many classes, he wrote, were taught from a de facto Protestant perspective and began with the assumption that the Bible is literally true, a perspective not shared by all Christians. Two school districts were teaching a long-discredited idea that modern racial diversity can be traced back to Noah’s sons. Chancey also found instances of antisemitism in the courses and noted that many taught not only creationism but discredited “Christian nation” history.
Many of the classes were far from academically rigorous. Some relied on memorization of Bible verses, and one district even used cartoons in a high school class.
According to Chancey, Hamilton County’s Bible class has a reach that extends far beyond the community’s borders.
“Hamilton County’s Bible program is the largest and probably the longest-running in the country,” Chancey told Church & State. “It is certainly one of the most influential, historically speaking. In its heyday, the program’s boosters claimed that its plan had been adopted in over 1,000 communities nationwide.”
But, Chancey added, the county’s approach has serious flaws.
“By adopting a ‘Bible History’ approach, the Hamilton County program hasn’t made it easy for teachers to stick to the straight and narrow path of the law,” he said. “Teachers are supposed to present the material in ways that neither promote nor disparage particular religious viewpoints, religion in general or non-religion. But there are a wide range of views about the Bible’s historical accuracy within both Judaism and Christianity, not to mention among people who identify with neither tradition.
“If the program is presenting the Bible as straightforward history, then it is staking out a particular position in that debate – and making a theological claim,” Chancey concluded. “That approach would clearly run afoul of the guidelines various federal courts have established.”
Hamilton County education officials issued a press statement Feb. 11 saying that a review committee is being formed “to evaluate the course content and reference materials.”
AU says the district should remove the course entirely, but that if the district is intent on keeping the course, it should remove inappropriate content and offer thorough training to teachers on the constitutional requirements for teaching – not preaching – religion as a secular subject in public schools.
Officials in the school district, AU points out, would do well to review the “Know Your Rights” guides that AU produced last year for students, families and parents about their religious-freedom rights and responsibilities in public schools. (You can read the guides at www.au. org/ how-we-protect-religious-freedom/know-your-rights/ public-schools/.)
The guide aimed at teachers makes it clear that it’s all right to teach objectively about religion – but proselytism is forbidden.
“But the public schools and their teachers must not teach that a particular religion is true (or not true) or that religious doctrines or beliefs are factual, nor may they encourage students to practice a particular religion or reward or punish them for doing so” (or not doing so), observes the guide. “For instance, a school could not legally tell students that God helped Moses part the Red Sea, that Jesus was resurrected, or that Mohammed was visited by an angel. And public schools are not allowed to teach creationism or intelligent design, because those ideas are fundamentally religious explanations for the beginning of life.”
AU believes educators in Hamilton County would do well to study AU’s guide as they deliberate the fate of the “Bible History” course.