A majority of Bible classes taught in Texas public high schools lack safeguards to protect the separation of church and state, according to a study by the Texas Freedom Network.
The report, Reading, Writing and Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools, by Southern Methodist University Professor Mark Chancey “details serious problems found in most Bible courses currently offered in Texas public schools.”
Chancey said if Bible courses are to be taught in public schools it is essential they be taught objectively and not “stealthily used to introduce theology and even political ideology into the public school classroom, in contravention of the First Amendment.”
“Few would question the Bible’s historical and cultural influence and, contrary to the claims of many, its study has never been banned from the public school classroom,” he said. The matter at stake, he said, is not whether Bible courses can be taught but how they are taught in public schools. Courts have ruled that the First Amendment requires that such courses neither encourage nor disparage a set of religious beliefs.
Chancey’s study found Bible courses are relatively uncommon, but the number appears to be increasing.
Most courses, he said, are taught by teachers with no academic training in biblical, religious or theological studies and in several districts are taught by local clergy.
The level of academic rigor in Bible courses, he said, “varies tremendously and often fails to meet even minimal standards expected in our public schools.”
Other findings include:
–Most school districts use sectarian materials typically reflecting a Protestant Christian perspective for curricula, teacher resources, student textbooks, classroom handout and videos. Eleven Texas districts utilize the curriculum of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Materials submitted by those districts, the study said, “demonstrate that the sectarian claims of that curriculum permeated the classrooms.” Others use Halley’s Bible Handbook, a “beloved classic for many readers,” but intended for use in churches and not by the general public.
–Most courses use the Protestant Bible. If Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish Bibles are discussed at all, they are “presented as deviations from the norm.
–The Bible is often presented as the product of divine inspiration.
–Courses assume that students are Christians and that Christian theological claims are true.
–The Old Testament is read through “an explicitly Christian lens,” often as a set of prophesies fulfilled in the life of Jesus and the early church.
–Judaism is often described through Christian eyes, and some courses reflect the view that Christianity superseded or completed Judaism.
–Biblical stories are treated as literal history.
Chancey’s study found that in addition to sectarian views about the Bible, some Texas Bible courses also advanced an “ideological agenda” such as promotion of creation science or the view that America was established as a Christian nation.
Some schools show videos produced by WallBuilders, a Texas-based company devoted to dismantling the separation of church and state. The owner and president of WallBuilders, David Barton, is a well-known political activist but not a trained historian.
The study found a few school districts succeed in teaching about the Bible in public schools in an objective and non-sectarian manner.
Recommendations include adhering to guidelines proposed by the First Amendment Center titled The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.
The study also urges school districts to be “open in transparent” in how they decide to offer Bible courses and invite full participation from parents and other citizens. It calls for teachers to have appropriate academic background in biblical and religious studies and legal issues involving the teaching of religion in public schools. Classes should avoid relying primarily on sectarian resources, and school officials should regularly monitor courses to make sure they are legal and properly administered.
“The study of the Bible deserves the same respect as the study of Huck Finn, Shakespeare and the Constitution,” Roger Paynter, pastor of First Baptist Church of Austin, said at a press conference. “But in some public schools, Bible courses are being used to promote an agenda rather than to enrich the education of our schoolchildren.”
In addition to Texas, Georgia passed a law approving state funding for Bible classes. Similar legislation has been introduced in Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri.
Founded in 1995, the Texas Freedom Network is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of more than 23,000 religious and community leaders that opposes religious-right initiatives including private school vouchers, textbook censorship and faith-based deregulation.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.