When President Trump tweeted his praise for states seeking to allow Bible literacy classes in public schools, it was hardly surprising that Florida was on board, given its history. The state — along with Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, Virginia, and West Virginia — has one pending bill (HB 195) to the Legislative Assembly that would require secondary schools to offer an optional course on the Bible and religion.
A applicable state law, approved in 2002, already gives school districts the ability to offer courses that include “objective study” of the Bible. The proposed law would require school districts to make these courses available, and students could decide whether or not to enroll.
The rationale of co-sponsor Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach, is clear.
“A study of a creation book by its creator is absolutely essential,” Drake said, suggesting lessons in kindness and tolerance could help reduce other state problems, such as crime.
“So why not?” He asked. “It’s the book that prepares us for eternity, and there’s no other book that does that.”
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His explanation, however, illustrates for critics exactly why they oppose the measure. Since schools in Florida can already add Bible classes, they reason, something bigger has to be brewing.
“There is no doubt that this bill is being introduced with the goal of putting God in our schools,” said Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
She called the bill, and other bills like it, unconstitutional and divisive. The first 16 words of First Amendment clarify the illegality, she argued.
“There is an explicit strategy to pass a progressive set of bills that start with more palatable bills that appear neutral, but are not,” Laser said. She cited as examples the current Bible Literacy proposal and the passing of a law last year that requires all Florida public schools to post the words “In God We Trust” in a prominent place on the campus.
“They seem innocuous,” she continued. “But Project Blitz makes it clear that they are the first step in a project to codify a Christian America.”
Flash project is an initiative of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square”.
Steve Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation, served as lead legal counsel for the foundation and its efforts. He readily acknowledged the organizations’ attempts to get states to adopt their model legislation on national currency (“In God we trust”), the Bible, and other related matters.
He, however, rejected any suggestion that what they are doing is aimed at creating a state religion.
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“This is not a secret way to evangelize,” Fitschen said, noting that students already have the opportunity to do so through Bible clubs and other permitted campus activities. “We are not advocating using the mechanism of public schools to do what children can do for themselves.”
Rather, he said, the groups aim to encourage the understanding and practice of religion, which he says is permitted in the US Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits government establishment of a religion, he argued, but expressly supports its practice.
“Encouraging religion is not establishing religion,” Fitschen said, referring to the Northwest Ordinance in which Congress introduced today’s Midwestern territories into the nation.
In these 18th century documents, Congress declared, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education will be forever encouraged.
Current legislation, Fitschen argued, builds on this underlying value, while providing material – the Bible and Scripture – that would help children understand a key foundation of Western civilization.
If Bible literacy classes are academic and not devotional in nature, and do not encourage or discourage any religious views, they would be permitted, said David Brockman, nonresident scholar in Rice University Baker’s Religion and Public Policy Program. Institute.
Highly suspicious of the consolidation of state and church powers, with a history of religious persecution in their recent past, the founders were careful to keep religion at a distance from government, he said. he declares. And that’s what’s been acceptable in terms of how public schools deal with the subject.
“Teach, don’t preach. That’s a good way to put it,” Brockman said.
However, he continued, laws like this are not always implemented this way.
Texas adopted its version in 2007, and independent researchers found that classes were taught by untrained teachers, sometimes pastors, and were often one-sided in their lessons.
“How are people going to be sure this isn’t essentially taxpayer-funded Sunday school classes?” Brockman asked, noting that Florida’s bill does not include any provision for preparing teachers and monitoring results.
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from Broward County, said he too is concerned about the “slippery slope” this bill could create. He offered more support for the idea of teaching about the diversity of religions rather than focusing on just one book.
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“As a Christian myself, I would love to learn more about different religions because it would give me the opportunity to respect my brothers and sisters in a different way,” Jones said. “If we say, ‘My religion trumps yours,’ that causes the divisions we already have.”
Drake, the co-sponsor of the bill, said he would not complain about schools teaching world religions and using their scriptures.
But “in the world there is a book which is the ultimate authority over mankind. It is the Holy Bible,” he said. “I think it should be studied in our schools.”
HB 195 was assigned to three House committees for review. The Senate does not currently have a complementary bill.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]