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July 01, 2006

Georgia's Bible Bill: A New Front in an Old War

by Charles C. Haynes

Georgia’s “Bible bill,” enacted in April 2006, opens a new front in the Bible wars that have divided Americans since the early days of the Common School Movement. Back then, we fought over which version of the Bible— Protestant or Catholic—would be read each morning. Some 150 years later, the battle is over the Bible in the curriculum or, to be precise, over which approach to teaching about the Bible will be used in the classroom.

In recent years, most of the Bible conflicts, such as the 1997 lawsuit over Bible courses in Lee County, Florida, or the 2005 controversy over curriculum choice in Odessa, Texas, have been local. But Georgia has taken the fight to a new level by being the first state to provide funding and curricula for Bible electives in high schools. Similar legislation is being considered in Alabama and Missouri, with proponents promising more to come.

If these bills were merely an effort to encourage academic study of the Bible, the Georgia legislation might not be controversial. After all, teaching about the Bible with appropriate safeguards is constitutional as long as that teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). A good case can be made for the educational importance of study about the Bible. Without some knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures, how will students understand much of what they read in literature or encounter in history and current events?

Unfortunately, however, the Georgia bill appears to be less about education than about partisan politics and stealth attempts to promote one religious view of the Bible in schools. To understand why, the backstory is important.

A Political Football

The inspiration for this legislation came from Randy Brinson, evangelical founder of Redeem the Vote. In 2005, he persuaded Democratic legislators in Alabama and Georgia to propose bills that would encourage Bible electives using a new textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, published by the Bible Literacy Project. Because that text had been reviewed by more than forty scholars (including this author), endorsed by some evangelical leaders, and successfully field-tested, Democrats saw such legislation as an opportunity to be religion friendly without violating the First Amendment.

Republicans in these states were not happy at the prospect of Democrats stealing their biblical thunder. One Georgia Grand Old Party senator accused the Democrats of “trying to put a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and Georgia Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature, were able to scuttle the Democratic bill and pass their own version. Alabama Republicans managed to block their state’s bill in early 2006; efforts to revive it have stalled.

Behind the scenes in both states, Republicans were lobbied by supporters of an alternative approach to Bible courses, developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a conservative Christian group based in North Carolina. For more than a decade, the council’s materials have triggered bitter fights in school districts across the country (including Odessa). According to a report authored by biblical scholar Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, the council’s curriculum “advocates a narrow sectarian perspective taught with materials plagued by shoddy research, blatant errors and discredited or poorly cited sources.” MARK CHANCEY, THE BIBLE AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS: REPORT ON THE NATIONAL COUNCIL ON BIBLE CURRICULUM IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS (Texas Freedom Network Education Fund 2005).

Emboldened by endorsements of the council’s approach from Religious Right groups such as the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum, GOP legislators in Georgia drafted and passed a bill that closes the door to a textbook and instead mandates that the Bible itself “be the basic text.” This approach tracks the council’s “curriculum,” which treats the Bible as the textbook and recommends secondary material drawn mostly from evangelical Christian sources.

Abandoning Scholarship

The legislation also includes language that prohibits “teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible,” leaving unclear whether the new law precludes students’ learning about how various Jewish and Christian traditions interpret the scriptures. The law’s aim appears to be to have students learn the Bible without any messy scholarly interpretations. Senator Tommie Williams, one of the bill’s sponsors, put it this way: “We simply have to teach, ‘This is what happened— make your own judgments.’” Sarah Childress, See You in Bible Class, NEWSWEEK, May 1, 2006.

Although the law states that Bible courses are to be taught in “an objective and nondevotional manner,” the overall approach urged by this legislation will mean that students read the Bible as a kind of history book—“the history recorded by the Old and New Testaments”—without exposure to conflicting interpretations of the scriptures (or debates about what is and is not historical) from various Jewish, Christian, and academic sources. Although the Georgia law may not be unconstitutional on its face, the method of teaching the Bible mandated in it is a recipe for unconstitutional courses, especially when taught by teachers with little or no training in the academic study of the Bible. (Teacher preparation is left to local school boards.) Bible electives that do not include a variety of religious and secular viewpoints, that ignore biblical scholarship, and that fail to distinguish between claims of supernatural occurrences and historical fact are unlikely to survive legal challenges under the First Amendment.

If lawmakers in Georgia or anywhere else are really serious about religious literacy, they should avoid playing politics with the Bible by attempting to promote religious agendas in the public school curriculum. Other sources are available for developing a more balanced approach to teaching the Bible in public school curricula. Public schools can (and should) teach about the Bible, but only if they are willing to ensure that such teaching is constitutionally permissible and educationally sound.

As published in Human Rights, Summer 2006, Volume 33, Number 3, p.14-15.

Charles C. Haynes

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., and author of Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools.