WEST VIRGINIA — State senators on Wednesday passed a hotly debated bill requiring local county school boards to provide an option in public high schools on Bible teaching despite feelings the bill could constitute a violation of the state constitution.
The bill has now passed the House of Delegates and the State Senate. This is comprehensive legislation and it will be up to Governor Jim Justice to decide if he wants to enact it.
The bill passed with 30 senators in favor and three Democrats against: Sen. Stephen Baldwin, Sen. William Ihlenfeld and Sen. Corey Palumbo.
Baldwin, who expressed frustration with the bill just a day before it passed, tried on Tuesday to add an amendment that would allow the bill to include any sacred text or comparative religion, not just religions related to the Bible. Baldwin’s amendment failed, even though the same group of senators passed the same amendment a week ago in a similar Senate bill.
The Senate bill, which would include any sacred text or comparative religion, has stalled before the House Education Committee since its passage by the Senate.
Baldwin remained silent on Wednesday before voting against the bill, having already expressed his feelings about it; however, some senators reluctantly came out in favor of the bill.
Sen. Mike Woelfel, a Democrat, said he is not against religious education because he pays for his family members’ religious education every day throughout the school year. However, he believes the bill may be a violation of the state constitution.
“I’m going to vote for this bill. I certainly think our students could benefit from it, but here you have a bill that’s going to be declared unconstitutional,” Woelfel said. “By making it restrictive and refusing the amendment, [to include any sacred text or comparative religion]I bet you a holy rosary that this will be declared unconstitutional.”
Democratic Senator Richard Lindsay II said he reluctantly voted for the bill, but also believes the amendment Baldwin proposed on Tuesday would have improved it. He recalled when the Senate Judiciary Committee considered the Senate version of the bill and how “beautiful” it was to listen to other people of other faiths.
“The amendment included multiple religions, and there was so much discussion about how these could be incorporated without others feeling left out or offended,” Lindsay said. “My reluctance with this bill here now is that we had such a beautiful moment in the Senate Judiciary, with beautiful faiths, and I feel like we are losing that with this passage.”
Sen. Paul Hardesty, a Democrat, also voted in favor of the bill on Wednesday, but said he, too, reluctantly supported it. Recalling a time when he served on the Logan County school board in the 1990s, Hardesty said he felt compelled to place the Ten Commandments on a wall in the school system.
“I thought we were doing something good for Logan County, but I quickly found out I had opened a Pandora’s box in the process,” Hardesty said. “We tried to do something right, but the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) told us we would face litigation.”
Hardesty said that in an effort to keep the Ten Commandments on the wall, they created a collage of other historical documents to associate them with, including passages from the Quran, Torah, etc.
“It allowed us to complete the ACLU challenge, and why am I telling you this?” Hardesty asked. “Well, I think this bill is well intentioned, but I can tell you from first-hand knowledge from two decades ago, it’s not going to work. They’ll come after you, and we’ll have to come back and visit this.
“We really have to be careful as we go through this.”
After the vote, Baldwin said that although he is a Christian pastor and father, he wants his children to learn the Bible in their church, not in their school.
“As a Bible student and teacher, that is my guiding light. We should teach it everywhere in our churches and through our actions,” Baldwin said. “However, we should not involve the government in religious education. I also believe in the separation of church and state as set forth in our Constitution. Therefore, I voted against” the Bible Bill, “allowing public schools to teach Bible courses.”
Representatives of the ACLU-West Virginia have been present at public hearings regarding the bill, expressing the backlash that will accompany it if it passes. After the bill passed on Wednesday, ACLU officials took to their Facebook page to seek a veto.
“House Bill 4780, a Christian nationalist-backed bill that would place Bible education in public schools, has just been passed by the Senate with an overwhelming majority,” the statement said. “We thank Senator Stephen Baldwin, Senator William Ihlenfeld and Senator Corey Palumbo for having the courage and common sense to vote no. Our fight now moves to the Governor’s Office. Call the Governor’s Office of Justice now ( 304-558-2000) and ask that he veto this ridiculous bill before it becomes law and exposes our school districts to potential litigation.”