Back to the Texas Bible wars

bible studies in schoolTexas’s El Paso Times had an interesting story Tuesday on a development in the state’s law that initially seemed to require public schools to teach a non-sectarian Bible course that would be an elective taught by teachers who received some sort of specialized training.

It turns out that the law may not be mandatory, and the legislature neglected to fund the training. The state’s education commissioner says that due to lack of funds, there hasn’t been any special training. Amendments made to the law before it was passed seem to suggest that the schools may only have to offer the class if at least 15 students are interested. Another section of the bill says that the schools “may” offer the course, as in, the course is not mandatory anymore.

I’m a little confused how this is only making news now. A reasonable reading of the legislation in its final form would have revealed these problems, but it’s hardly the first time a legislature passed a poorly written law with inherent inconsistencies that will likely be left to the courts to sort out:

AUSTIN — The state’s top education official wants to know whether Texas high schools will have to start offering Bible classes during the 2009-2010 school year.

Last year, lawmakers passed a law requiring high schools to make Bible courses available as electives. The classes, according to the law, would not be a graduation requirement and would be religion neutral.

“Many of us believe the elective course would complement the studies of literature and the arts in the curriculum,” said state Rep. Norma Chavez, D-El Paso, a co-author of the bill. “I think it’s a good option for students.”

It is interesting to note that the law was co-authored by a Democrat. What’s also interesting is that the story doesn’t seem to explain that the law is not really requiring anything, at least how I am reading it.

Professor Howard Friedman of The University of Toledo College of Law kindly provides a link to a letter on his excellent Religion Clause blog from the state’s education commissioner to the state’s attorney general asking for the law’s proper interpretation. As you can see from the letter, there are at least three ways the law could be read.

But back to the article. In conclusion, the reporter attached the opinions of some of the parents whose children attend local schools. Both comments are generally positive toward the law:

Pamela Perez, who lives in Northeast El Paso and has a 3-year-old and a 13-year-old, said Bible courses in public schools would be a good option for students, teaching them how to treat one another and how to deal with problems without resorting to violence.

“What children will learn from the Bible will help them in their every day lives,” she said.

Cher Poehlein, who has three school-aged children and lives in Horizon City, agreed Bible courses would be a good thing for students in public schools, with one big caveat.

“As long as its nondenominational that would be OK,” she said. “I would be very much for it.”

There are some out there that disagree with this law because both reader comments attached to the story seem opposed to the idea. Was there no one around that disagreed with this bill? Was there anyone in El Paso that thought that the law is not the best use of state education funds?

Since they are not funding the law, the issue may no longer be significant. I also think it’s interesting that the second person quoted believes it is important that it’s nondenominational. Does that mean just within Protestant denominations, or would a Catholic view towards the Bible be included in that statement? Would they object to a course teaching the Koran from a historical point of view?

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  • Dave

    As a strong believer in the separation of church and state, I see nothing wrong with the Bible being studied in public schools as literature and folk history. However, one of the parents quoted seems to expect the course would include moral instruction; that would cross the line.

  • Jerry

    legislature passed a poorly written law with inherent inconsistencies that will likely be left to the courts to sort out

    This point should be highlighted. Those that dislike “activist” judges should insist that laws be carefully drawn. Of course, the definition of “activist” depends on political orientation with the right disliking left decisions and visa versa, but we’d all be better served by more carefully drawn and fully funded laws.

  • dpulliam

    Amen Jerry.

  • tmatt

    A lesson I have learned, as a reporter.

    The best legislation on these matters comes out of coalitions of conservative Prots, Catholics AND JEWS. A three-legged approach.

  • FW Ken

    Do you really want a public school teaching your kids the Bible? As folk lore? As moral teaching, perhaps, but a significant part of the New Testament concerns itself with the futility of moral behavior apart from Christ. How would a public institution deal with that? It would be nice if kids could learn enough bible content to recognize the biblical references in, say, Shakespeare, or be able to identify the sources of many current political conflicts.

    And we haven’t even gotten to the 18th chapter of Leviticus. Try teaching THAT!

  • Dave

    FW Ken writes:

    [...A] significant part of the New Testament concerns itself with the futility of moral behavior apart from Christ. How would a public institution deal with that?

    “This part of the story says that moral behavior is not enough if one does not accept the faith of the people who wrote this text.”

    And we haven’t even gotten to the 18th chapter of Leviticus. Try teaching THAT!

    “The people who wrote this text believed that their faith commanded them that close relatives should keep their clothes on around one another. With regard to 18:17, remember that men were allowed to have more than one wife under their rules. This text prohibits a man from having a woman and her daughter or granddaughter both as wives of the same man.”

  • FW Ken

    The reference was to the 22nd verse:

    You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; such a thing is an abomination.

  • Mollie

    In my church, we have parochial schools so I’m not particularly familiar with these battles.

    However, I took a course in college that required the reading of the entire Bible. And it was handled just like Dave describes. It was a Bible as Literature course.

    I’m pretty sure my professor was neither Christian nor Jewish and none of my fellow students struck me as particularly religious.

    And, for what it’s worth, it was one of my most memorable courses. I really learned a great deal from it.

    Still, it’s true that learning the Bible in a secular sense is very different than studying it as a Christian would.

  • Dave

    FW Ken, that could be taught as: “The people whose text this is believed that homosexuality was wrong.”

    Are you supposing that the schools might be inhibited in mentioning homosexuality in class?

  • FW Ken


    My point was that I don’t really want public school teachers teaching the Bible, and that verse (among other biblical texts) is one particularly inflammatory reason why. It seems to me that however one falls on that particular question, it’s not really a question the public schools can address. when you have kids sitting there whose text that is, and who believe – present tense – that same-sex erotic acts are wrong (I avoid the term “homosexuality”, btw, since it can mean several things). You might have other kids from a same-sex household. Neither side should have the prerogative of indoctrinating the other into their way of thinking. The track record of the public schools suggests that ideological concerns, of one kind or another, will insert themselves. College kids who take a bible as literature course are one thing, high school kids are another.

    Now, I’m going no further into ideological matters on this journalism website.

  • Dave

    FW Ken,

    You’re certainly entitled to your opinion that public school teachers shouldn’t teach the Bible, but when you phrase that as (I paraphrase) “How can that be done?” my near-reflex response is to explain how.

    Neither side should have the prerogative of indoctrinating the other into their way of thinking.

    I fully concur. A values-neutral — anthropological, if you will — approach such as I gave examples of, would steer a course between those two sides.

    If ideological content were injected, I would expect it to arise not from the public schools themselves, but from parents — those outraged at “their” Bible being taught as folklore, or same-sex parents outraged that their kids were being exposed to Lev 18:22 in any form.

  • Z

    I think the track record of public schools is getting better, at least in urban areas where they are used to teaching diverse student bodies. The Bible Literacy Project offers one of the leading Bible curricula for public schools and they report courses being taught in 37 states.
    I don’t think anyone supports mandatory Bible classes, only elective, so if you don’t think your local school can get it right, you don’t put your kids in that class. This doesn’t mean that the school can just teach a religious course to those who want it, but the fact that kids aren’t forced allows the course to compete on its own academic merits.
    Kids need to know who Moses is, what “washing your hands of it” means, what prodigal son means. Biblical terms are everywhere in our literature and art, and our political discourse.

  • Asinus Gravis

    Before you get too excited by “The Bible Literacy Project,” a religious right project, you might look at the review piece found below: . The editor of the volume has no academic credentials in the study of the Bible.