AP’s one-sided report on teaching Bible in public schools

Gotcha!

That’s the distinct tone of an Associated Press story out this week (just three weeks behind Religion News Service) on a new Bible elective approved by an Oklahoma school district.

But does this AP story, filled with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, deliver the actual journalistic goods?

Why don’t you help me decide, inquiring-mind GetReligion readers?

Let’s start at the top:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Steve Green’s faith led him to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he’s argued the nation’s new health care law and its requirement that his business provide certain types of birth control to employees violates his religious freedoms.

At the same time, the president of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores is working to add the Bible to the curriculum of public high schools nationwide. His purpose, stated more clearly at some times than at others, is for students to learn its text and put America on a righteous course.

“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Green said last year to the National Bible Association, announcing his plan for the high school course. “There are lessons from the past that we can learn from, the dangers of ignorance of this book. We need to know it, and if we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.”

Green has established a beachhead in his home state of Oklahoma, where the public Mustang School District in suburban Oklahoma City will begin teaching a class about the Bible as an elective beginning this fall. The goal is to place the Bible course in thousands of schools by 2017.

Green told the Mustang school board last fall that the one-year trial of the Bible curriculum developed by the Green Scholars Initiative wasn’t intended to proselytize or “go down denominational, religious-type roads,” and persuaded the board that the plan would pass any constitutional challenges.

Later in the story, readers learn that Green declined an interview with the AP. So readers are left with the wire service’s interpretation of what he has said in the past and what his motivations/intentions are. (For the record, I don’t think Green’s refusal to talk helps his side.)

Keep reading, and the AP quotes three “experts” — all concerned about the Bible elective approved by the suburban school district. First up and worried about a constitutional line possibly being crossed is Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University:

“Sometimes it happens very intentionally where people and groups try to send in these courses as Trojan horses to try to get public schools to promote their religion over all other others,” Chancey said.

Also quoted about his concerns is Brady Henderson of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, along with “other (unnamed) groups,” already has “received (unspecified) complaints from the public,” according to the AP. (The words inside the parenthesis are mine.)

And Rich Tepker of the University of Oklahoma Law Center suggests that “the curriculum crosses a line, given Green’s previous statements”:

“When he does this current thing, when he gets the school board to act as a sovereign entity from the government, it’s not free speech, its theocracy and that’s unconstitutional,” he said. “He has a political agenda that amounts to civil disobedience against the First Amendment.”

Cue the dramatic music. It’s obvious something sinister is happening in my home state. Otherwise, all the “experts” wouldn’t be so concerned, right?

But as long as we’re talking about journalism, are there any missing voices in this story? Any folks who deserve an opportunity to respond to the criticism?

For example, in a story about a school district approving a curriculum, might the AP consider quoting a school official? Perhaps the superintendent? Perhaps the school district’s attorney? Hey, to get really wild and crazy, might the AP provide some specific details about the nature of the curriculum actually approved — as opposed to Green’s statements last year?

Moreover, since the AP indicates that the public already is complaining, might the AP quote some actual parents whose children attend schools in Mustang? Are they upset about the curriculum? Or are they excited about students having an opportunity to choose a Bible elective?

Finally, how about a little context on the fact that Bible electives already are taught — legally — in hundreds of public schools nationwide? How about providing some insight on best — and worst — practices for such courses from the foremost authority (my opinion) on the subject, Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project? Why not provide some specific information on what’s wrong (in the experts’ analysis) with the Mustang curriculum, as opposed to vague concerns about what Green has said?

Back to my original question: Does this story deliver the goods? You tell me.

Gotcha.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • helen

    No, it doesn’t tell us what the locals think. It also doesn’t speculate on the likelihood of the Bible course being set opposite courses that most students will be required to take, thereby “having your Bible cake”, (and having the ACLU’s pudding, too). That’s what happened to my kids, decades ago, but as we had religious ed. at church I wasn’t too concerned.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I am ambivalent about public schools teaching the Bible in a secular way. On the one hand, one can hardly call oneself well educated without knowledge of that book, just as one ought to know Shakespeare and the Greek myths and a lot of other things. On the other hand, if the teacher is hostile to the Bible, then the whole thing might backfire.

    But with regard to the article, yes, there are many missing voices.

    I also wonder if some challenging follow-up questions might not also be in order. To the guy who worried about the course being a Trojan horse, I would ask if in the history of education Trojan horses were used by atheists or those hostile to Christianity to advance their views (for instance, evolutionary theory: permission to teach it has since become prohibition to teach anything else). Or at least if any such Christian Trojan horses were actually used and what the outcome was.

    To Tepker, I’d like to know how a local school board acting independently of the government constitutes theocracy and an infringement of free speech. What purpose is the school board if all it should do is conform to the government; and how is such conformity a protector of free speech?

    • Ray Ingles

      (for instance, evolutionary theory: permission to teach it has since become prohibition to teach anything else)

      Well, there’s a prohibition on teaching religion in science class, sure. (On the other hand, if the teacher is hostile to evolution…) I know of no religious theory that actually qualifies as science, though. Framing evolutionary theory as a “Trojan horse” seems rather a stretch, I’m afraid. Heck, even framing evolutionary theory as “hostile to Christianity” seems a bit much.

      • AuthenticBioethics

        It was just an example, Ray. It wasn’t “about” evolutionary theory per se. And it DID get into the schools through legal actions, because a guy got in trouble just for teaching it, and now people are more likely to get in trouble for teaching against it than for teaching it. The Freshwater fellow’s case to which you linked is a perfect example of what happens to a heretic with the audacity to challenge the established orthodoxy – but it started with the famous Scopes trial, where the roles were reversed. And Scopes intentionally instigated his prosecution – a kind of Trojan horse but admittedly imperfect, with obvious results, as Freshwater could attest, of the kind the person interviewed was afraid of. Anyway, asking that person about whether he knows of any successful Trojan horses and if only people advancing religion use them would have been worth while.

        Also, my comment also wasn’t about proposing religion as science. The Bible would be taught as literature and to help students be culturally aware, not as religion per se.

        And whether religion actually constitutes a science, it is a matter of how you define science. If you mean by the word those disciplines concerned with the structure and properties of matter in the universe, then I’d have to agree with you.

        • Ray Ingles

          Sorry, Freshwater isn’t a “heretic with the audacity”. Heretic possibly, but no audacity – go read the links. Unlike Scopes, he wanted to stay under the radar. He’d hand out young-Earth creationist handouts, then collect them at the end of class so that there wouldn’t be a paper trail. He changed his story several times along the way, as well.

          The ‘legal actions’ that finally allowed evolutionary science to be taught in science class were of an entirely different order, I’m afraid. In any case, even (allegedly) “militant” atheists aren’t against teaching the Bible in school. It’s the way to present it that’s the concern, as you note.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Wow. Quite a (lack of) story. Could be worse. First, AP clearly fails to make a good journalistic effort to use the 5 W’s here and seems to let a strawman religion ghost haunt the reader. Even with Green declining to interview, there is sufficient info to show that what Green believes is different from what would be taught. The “Museum of the Bible” is a roving biblical history museum. As the post noted, there’s little to suggest any line-crossing except by AP insinuating one by failing to make further inquiry on what is already out there in religious studies and how Green’s initiative meets the secular law. It’s a silly, short piece that could be summed up as “Does religious study belong in schools?” with a “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” tone.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    I mentioned Charles Haynes in the post. I emailed him before I wrote the post but didn’t hear back before I wrote it. However, I did want to share his later reply to my question:

    Yes, I have been following this story… I actually helped Mustang resolve a “Dec. dilemma” conflict in 2005… and draft a good “religion in schools” policy.

    In my view, the AP story was not balanced. Green’s religious views — or religious motivations — do not necessarily make the curriculum unconstitutional. The material must be considered on its own merits. I couldn’t make sense of the quote from Rick Tepker — but he seems to be arguing that anything Green proposes must be unconstitutional because Green proposes it.

    Green, of course, helped created the perception of a “conspiracy” to promote the Gospel in schools by keeping the curriculum under wraps during the process of adoption.

    I now have read some of the curriculum — and see quite a few problems. There is a lot there to discuss… That’s why the public would be better served if the media focused on the substance of the textbooks rather than viewing the material through the lens of Steve Green’s religious views and motivations.

    I suspect that Steve Green believes that it is possible to offer a Bible elective in public schools that is both constitutional and consistent with an evangelical reading of the Bible. I don’t think this is possible… But that will be the debate over the coming months.

    Charles C. Haynes | Director

    Religious Freedom Center
    NEWSEUM


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