In what’s described as a “wave” of new Bible-related bills, several states are considering expansions to their public school curriculum.
Last week the Missouri House of Representatives passed House Bill 267, which would allow public schools to offer social studies electives about the Bible. Its sponsor, Republican Ben Baker, says the goal “is not to teach religious classes or worship practices…but to teach the Bible as literature and the history of its influence on the United States of America.”
According to the bill, a social studies teacher would “teach students the biblical content, characters and narratives of the Bible that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.” Courses, for which students could earn credit, can’t “endorse or favor any particular religion.”
Because Missouri law already lets schools address religious texts in class, some opponents say the bill isn’t necessary. But Baker, a pastor and missionary, says it’s important to clarify that such electives are allowed. Students should have the opportunity “if they so choose, to study the most important book in the history of the world,” he says. The bill now heads to the Missouri Senate.
In Georgia, a proposal allowing schools to teach electives on the Old and New Testaments passed both state chambers but is undergoing revisions. Until now, public schools in that state offered courses on the Bible as “History and Literature.”
Language in the proposal requires that Bible electives be taught in an objective, non-proselytizing manner. Kevin Dowling, assistant superintendent for Lee County Schools, says students “would learn the history, the culture, the customs of the people at that time and the literature” without “any type of indoctrination.”
Other States Seek to Add Bible Electives
On March 29, Arkansas lawmakers struck down a bill that would have required public schools to offer a Bible elective if at least 15 students requested one. A 2013 state law allows such electives but doesn’t require them.
Last year, Alabama, Iowa and West Virginia considered Bible literacy bills, but none passed. A new bill is now under consideration in Alabama, and similar bills have been introduced this year in Florida, Indiana, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.
In January, President Trump tweeted: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
What’s Behind the New Bills?
Several conservative Christian political groups, including the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, launched “Project Blitz” to advance Bible literacy bills. A lengthy playbook contains talking points and sample legislation to help “fully protect religious liberty and the free exercise of our faith in the public square.”
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, at least 75 bills modeled on that playbook have been proposed in more than 20 states during Trump’s presidency. These include “In God We Trust” bills that require or allow public schools to display that phrase.
Research analyst Frederick Clarkson says he was astounded to find a “strategy manual hidden away on a website explaining at least what a section of the religious right are doing in the United States.” The playbook contains three categories of legislation, and Project Blitz steering member David Barton admits the purpose of some bills is to force opponents to “divide their resources.”
But Barton, founder of WallBuilders (a reference to grassroots work, not the border wall), says some bills are being mischaracterized. “Bible literacy is a good thing to have,” he says. Many schools don’t offer Bible electives because they think it’s illegal, he adds, but, “We are saying, ‘Well, yes, you can.’”