For the Bible -- and State Legislature? -- Tells Us So

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Again, this is probably a subject better tackled by Bible Girl, but the Texas Freedom Network just shot over a press release concerning House Bill 1287, which was introduced in February by Friend of Passover State Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) and would require every public high school in the state to offer Bible classes. Now, says here it'd be a half-credit elective course "in both the history and literature of the Old Testament AND the history and literature of the New Testament," and that it would kick off in the next school year. Also says the districts' individual school boards would "monitor the content and teaching of such courses."

And while teaching the Bible as literature and history sounds like a good idea (or does it?), TFN discovered last year -- when it published Reading, Writing and Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools -- that some districts were using similar courses for purposes other than educating the kids about old books. In September, the report's author, SMU biblical scholar and prof Mark Chancey, said, "Many schools portray their Bible classes as social studies or literature courses, yet, intentionally or not, most are really courses about the religious beliefs of the teacher or minister leading the class or of those who created the course materials." Among the examples cited in the 2006 report: Some courses taught "the notion that dinosaurs roamed the earth with Adam and Eve." Wait -- that's not true? Sonofa... The TFN's release, issued today to coincide with a House Public Education Committee hearing just under way, is after the jump. --Robert Wilonsky


April 3, 2007

AUSTIN — Proposed legislation mandating that every Texas public high school offer courses on the Bible could threaten the religious freedom of students and put school districts in legal jeopardy, academics and advocates of religious liberty said today.

Legislators should make sure teachers and school administrators have the guidance and resources to teach classes on the Bible in a way that respects the faiths of all families in the district, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.

"What schools need is help, not another mandate," Miller said. "But this bill just lets politicians grandstand with the Bible while school administrators are left trying to maneuver through the minefields of the culture wars. You can almost see the lawyers lining up."

The House Public Education Committee is scheduled to hear testimony today on House Bill 1287 by state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. The bill would require the state's nearly 1,700 public high schools to offer courses on the Bible. A 2006 study for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund by Dr. Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, identified 25 public high schools already offering such courses in Texas. (The report is available at http://www.tfn.org/religiousfreedom/biblecurriculum/.) Many of the courses suffer from serious problems, including a failure to meet even minimal standards for teacher qualifications and academic rigor. More seriously, many end up being courses about the religious views of the teachers, undermining the religious freedom of the students and their families.

H.B. 1287's lack of standards for teacher qualifications and any requirement that instructional materials be based on sound scholarship are a recipe for abuse, Dr. Chancey said.

"The context or perspective comes from the teachers' personal experience, often only Sunday school experience," Dr. Chancey said. "No one should be surprised, then, when many of these classes end up being about the religious beliefs of the teacher rather than a true study of the Bible's influence on history and literature."

The Texas Freedom Network is recommending key, common-sense safeguards be added to H.B. 1287, including appropriate training for teachers and removing the requirement that the Bible itself serve as the primary textbook.

"It would be a terrible irony if an effort to teach students about the history of religious liberty in this country ended up running over it by promoting one religion above all others," said Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune, senior pastor at University Baptist Church in Austin and a member of the Texas Faith Network, which includes more than 600 clergy members. "Let's consider carefully how public schools can teach a course that respects both the Bible and the right of families to pass on their own religious beliefs to their children without interference from the government. As written, this bill won't get us there."

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