March 2022 Church & State Magazine

Course Correction: Parent Says A Tenn. Public School’s ‘Bible History’ Class Belongs In Sunday School

  Rob Boston

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 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.

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