A group of North Dakota lawmakers – all Republicans – introduced legislation that would require public schools across the state to teach a unit on the Bible. The unit could cover the Old Testament, the New Testament, or a mixture of the two, and would count toward students’ social studies credit requirements.
As blogger Hemant Mehta points out, the bill does not specify anything about how the courses would be delivered or even whether they would be secular or objective. Nothing prevents lessons from being derived from Sunday School lessons or other forms of Bible-based religious indoctrination.
This is not an exaggerated concern. In 2017, Kentucky passed a very similar law creating elective social studies courses on the Bible, specifying that these courses would teach content that is relevant and influential to contemporary society. He also specified that these courts should maintain “religious neutrality”.
Besides the fact that no similar law requires a “neutral” study of religious texts from other religious traditions, the ACLU quickly discovered that Kentucky schools were straying far from such neutrality. He sent a letter last January to the Kentucky Board of Education outlining the violations he found in schools across the state. The material in these classes proselytized students, asked students to proselytize, and taught them to incorporate Bible texts into their own personal morals, some of which came directly from Sunday School websites.
Students in different courses were confronted with questions: “In what ways are the virtues praised by the Book of Proverbs important character traits for today’s society? Or “What promises in the Bible does God give to all who believe in him?” Many students simply had to memorize verses from the Bible without any instruction as to why they had literary or cultural significance. A teacher even informed the students that the 2006 film The Exodus Decoded allegedly proves biblical accounts using science.
“Although it is not unconstitutional in itself to teach school children about religion and religious texts, “the ACLU wrote,” when a course focuses on a religious text, such as the Bible, it is extremely difficult to implement the course within the restrictions constitutional. Any Bible course in public schools should be secular, objective, non-devotional, and should not promote any specific religious point of view.
Last June, the Kentucky Board of Education responded by approving a narrow set of standards for the state’s Bible literacy classes. These standards specify that courses should focus on concepts such as analyzing literary aspects of the Bible, assessing the interaction between the Bible and historical events, examining the impact of the Bible on society and culture.
The ACLU told ThinkProgress that it had not taken any additional specific action in Kentucky, but was continuing to monitor the situation. He has, however, succeeded in defying Bible lessons in the past. Ten years ago, the ACLU helped a group of parents file a lawsuit against a school in Texas that taught a Bible class created by a private group with its own controversial interpretation of the Bible. It required students to answer “true” or “false” to questions of faith and presented unbalanced views on American history that promoted specific religious beliefs. The school agreed to stop teaching the course and follow strict legal standards if they attempted to teach another Bible course in the future.
The Freedom From Religious Foundation is also currently challenging a Bible course that was taught in elementary and middle schools in a district in West Virginia. The class taught that Adam and Eve coexisted with the dinosaurs and included lessons such as, “If all the Israelites had chosen to follow the Ten Commandments, think how safe and happy they would have been.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last month that the lawsuit against the school could continue even if the course is no longer being taught.
It is not known if the North Dakota legislation has a chance of being passed. By establishing a compulsory course without clear parameters for how it is taught, it will likely come under a rigorous legal scrutiny.