Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the devotional use of the Bible by public schools, in its ruling on Abington Township v. Schempp.
But many school districts in the Lone Star state still haven’t gotten the message, according to a report released last month by the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a religoius freedom watchdog, titled “Reading, Writing and Religion.”
Conducted by religious studies professor Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, the study examines elective Bible courses offered in 57 Texas school districts and 3 charter schools and concludes that “evidence of sectarian bias, predominantly favoring perspectives of conservative Protestantism, is widespread.” (The full report is available at www.tfn.org/biblecourses.)
In other words, school officials in many parts of Texas convert public schools into Sunday schools in violation of the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.
According to Professor Chancey, many Texas teachers with no training in the academic study of religion treat sacred events in the Bible as secular history, and use secondary sources that offer only one Christian interpretation of the Bible.
The religious agenda that shapes many of these courses isn’t subtle. For example, a supplementary text used in two districts informs students, on the inside font cover, that by studying the Bible they “will see the heart of God and the person of Jesus Christ revealed from Genesis to Revelation.”
Public schools, of course, can and should teach students about the Bible - in history, literature and elective courses. But such teaching must be educational, not devotional.
In Schempp, the High Court prohibited devotional Bible reading in public schools, but simultaneously encouraged appropriate inclusion of the Bible in the curriculum. Writing for the majority, Justice Tom Clark put it this way:
“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization… Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effect ted consistently with the First Amendment.”
Despite the Supreme Court’s guidance about what is and isn’t constitutional, many public schools continue to have a hard time getting the Bible right.
In recent years, religious conservatives as well as advocates of biblical literacy have urged states to support the creation of Bible courses. As a result, a growing number of states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, South Dakota and Arizona, have passed legislation encouraging local districts to offer Bible electives.
The Texas “Bible bill” was passed in 2007 and like similar laws in other states was supposed to support Bible courses that are constitutionally and educationally sound. Thanks to the Texas Freedom Network and other First Amendment advocates, some safeguards were built into the legislation calling for teacher training in the academic study of the Bible and adherence to constitutional principles.
Unfortunately, the law hasn’t worked. Most Bible electives in Texas created since 2007 are taught by unqualified teachers, using sectarian materials and promoting one religious interpretation of the Bible.
According to the TFN report, “the evidence suggests that these problems largely reflect a failure by state and local officials to implement provisions in the new state law that were designed to protect the religious freedom of students and help school districts construct academically and constitutionally sound courses.”
The TFN study does have some good news. Professor Chancey found at least 11 Texas school districts with successful Bible courses, many using textbooks (“The Bible and Its Influence”; “The Bible As/In Literature”) which pass constitutional muster and which provide objective study of biblical literature.
As Justice Clark pointed out, biblical literacy is an important part of a good education. After all, knowledge of biblical stories and concepts contributes to our understanding of literature, history, law, art and contemporary society.
But when the Bible comes into the public school classroom, it must arrive through the First Amendment door.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.