Bill introduced in Arkansas would allow a bible class in public schools.

A legislator here in Arkansas just introduced a bill that would allow public high schools to teach the bible as an elective class.

In a state like Arkansas (or Alabama, or Mississippi), I think it’s highly likely that his is an attempt to give religious teachers an outlet to preach to a captive audience.  We know this is one of the goals of fundamentalist Christians.  However, I do support an academic (and factually-sound) education of the bible.  So how could such bills be modified to make sure they produce classes in which the latter takes place?

Perhaps a bill that allows elective religion courses in which the bible, the Quran, and other holy books are studied.  I suspect if it were mandatory for other religions to be taught that the fundamentalists’ interest in these kids’ “academic exploration of the bible” would dry up real quick.

Or perhaps severe penalties written into the bill for anyone caught treating such a class like a pulpit?  But then, what would such penalties look like?  Suspension from their job?  Termination from their job?  Or would the lingering threat of an ACLU or FFRF lawsuit be enough?  I’m very doubtful that it would be.  When I was with the SSA, the threat of a lawsuit was certainly not enough to keep teachers from blatantly discriminating against their atheist students and often was no impediment to the administrators, who would often aid those teachers.  However, if you have a whole class of students in a religion class, the odds go up that a student is going to record what the teachers say and then hand those legal bodies an open-and-shut case.

But then, would fundamentalist teachers (like the kind often found here in the South) care?  I mean, if the school gets sued over a teacher abusing their position then it’s not the teacher losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a lawsuit destined to be lost, it’s the school (and subsequently the students in the school).  And as we’ve seen in towns where similar lawsuits have been brought, such as Ahlquist v. Cranston, very often fundamentalists care more about getting religion into public schools than they care about the consequences to the students for their efforts.

And therein lies the issue with using children as pawns in the culture war, as deeply believing Christians so frequently are eager to do.  We “elitist” liberals place an enormous value on education.  Yet we only hear the conservative lament the possible loss of money earmarked for education, not when they began their attempt to circumvent or to outright break the law, but when staring down a judge who is about to tell them to stop trying to break the law.  All the while feeling as though they are being persecuted, of course.  Just look at all the believers who weren’t content with the school getting out with a bill of only a couple hundred thousand dollars in Cranston.

The fundies are willing to hold effective education for ransom, and I’m not sure how to get around that.  It may very well be that schools will have to keep paying for lost lawsuits while the teachers responsible for spitting on the law out of deference to their faith aren’t out a dime.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Glodson

    And when the district loses millions thanks to the pushing of religion in the schools, they lose resources. It makes it harder to provide an education, which is already difficult thanks to the limited funds already and the other ways our culture creates an adverse environment for education. Now if the district underperforms, it keeps kids ignorant and provides an excuse for more home-schooling.

    And I’m sure everyone here knows a bit about some of the popular home-school “textbooks.” Now the fundies can get their anti-intellectual message out more directly, create more ignorance, and celebrate the loss of money for public education which they decry as “indoctrination centers” without irony.

    Also, these bills are deceitful. We know it isn’t about Bible Study, it is about God in the classroom. The intent is not serious study, which would be useful. It is about sermons. This shows a divide in thought. The fundies are willing to lie and deceive to get their message out, to misrepresent. Meanwhile someone like me isn’t afraid of the truth. I am all for presenting the facts and letting others decide. Like in the whole Creationism mess. The fact is that isn’t science, and that’s where that ends. It isn’t, we’ve shown it time and time again. It is telling when there’s a group that needs to lie and deceive just to keep the talk going. And it is vital to get those lies into the classroom early, or to just destroy the class so they can have more direct control over it.

  • ewok_wrangler

    You, I, any atheist or secularist should enthusiastically support the addition of a survey course in religions or religious texts to the high-school curriculum — as long as it covers multiple religions or texts. Not just the Bible; the Bible plus the Quran plus the Bhagavad-Gita plus the teachings of the Buddha, and you know what? Let’s throw in some Book of Mormon and some Mary Baker Eddy too!

    There would be great practical value in improving students’ knowledge of and tolerance for other cultures and a deeper appreciation for their own tradition — that’s the sales pitch to the state legislature — but it would be a very effective wedge (a wedge of our own, yay!) tilting students away from unthinking religiosity and toward secularism.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    This would provide an opportunity to propose an atheist studies elective class. There’s certainly enough quality literature on the topic to build a reading list for the curriculum. There’s a complex culture surrounding it. There are interesting controversies within it, and there are plenty of civic issues and civil rights issues that atheism stimulates.
    And when the school officials refuse to even consider it, then there’s a nice opportunity for threat of lawsuits, and exposing the one-sided nature of the law and the school officials’ unequal policies and practices.

  • iknklast

    The problem is that many fundamentalist conservatives don’t like the public schools at all, so they have no problem using them as political footballs. They believe the entire school system should be privatized. This, of course, would lead to further class divisions in society, as the rich got to go to school, and everyone else had to teach their own kids, or sacrifice food or rent money to get their kid educated. So they turn it over to the church, because the church is always eager to take the little kids and teach them to read.

    This also tends to keep people from moving up out of the class they were born into; this is the ultimate end of the rich. The church education is the ultimate end of the religious. For the religious rich? Lots and lots of pious devout servants and workers who know their place.

  • JoannaDW

    Even if you wanted to focus on JUST the Bible (which could, indeed, take up multiple courses in itself) schools should use all translations of the Bible-Book of Mormon, King James, New American, New Jerusalem, etc. And, of course, alternative courses should be offered for other religions. A course on Judaism should include Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Hasidic and Reconstructionist reviews. A course on Islam should include Shi’ite, Sunni, and Sufi views, and so on. The key is to remain nondenominational. Another recommendation I would make is that the course must include criticisms of whatever texts are being taught, so people can have a balanced view.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    As I find religion fascinating, I wouldn’t mind a class that taught about many world religions. The question is, of course, the practical difficulties. I remember, for example, a while back there was a class that taught about different religions (I think it was a news story from Canada) and it was some religious parents who were complaining, because they didn’t want their kids to learn that their religion was equivalent to the others.

    My guess is that the demographics of the area would play a role. I mean, if there are lots of people from various religions in the township, maybe they could push back if any one religion was being given special treatment, but if you’ve got an area in which an overwhelming majority are members of one religion, maybe the small percentage of people who are not would feel too intimidated to keep things in check.

  • Randomfactor

    Local teachers in my redneck corner of California are reportedly hailing the new “core” standards set to be followed nationwide in a few years, because the specifically mention the Bible as allowable to teach literary context. Which they interpret as “Yay! We can finally teach Christianity again in the public schools.”

    Woe is us.

  • http://ahcuah.wordpress.com/ Ahcuah

    These days, though, recording devices are cheap and easily concealable. Imagine how much fun it would be for a kid to record the preaching and have it as solid evidence for a lawsuit.

  • John Horstman

    Wait, is there presently something preventing a school from teaching the Christian Bible as a work of literature? Bills like this make me twitchy because if you’re not teaching a religious text as TRUE, you really have nothing to worry about. (Unless perhaps Arkansas has explicitly banned teaching about the Christian Bible in public schools?) My high school African, Asian, and European Studies classes had a bunch of content devoted to religions from different areas, including Christianity in the European Studies class, all without the protection of such a law. I’m suspicious that the only reason such a law is necessary is to shift the burden of proof if anyone complains about teachers using classes where they teach ABOUT Christianity as cover for TEACHING CHRISTIANITY. So, no, bad law, because it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place if no one is trying to teach religion as truth in public schools.


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