State legislatures across the country are introducing bills to permit, and in some cases require, school districts to include bible “literacy” classes in their curriculum.
In theory, a public school bible course may be permissible, but it must be taught in a manner that complies with applicable federal and state law. All too often, the youngest students are targeted, only one religion’s “holy book” is selected, and there are no readings outside the bible or other religious materials. Courts routinely rule that these courses are unconstitutional because, in practice, courses preach the bible as religious truth, rather than teaching it objectively. FFRF successfully sued Mercer County, West Virginia, over its bible classes beginning in the first grade, which had been taught for more than 75 years. One lesson promoted creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed and asking students to “picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!” Our lawsuit stopped those classes last year.
In Rhea County, Tennessee, for decades bible students from William Jennings Bryan Bible College, whose motto is “Christ Above All,” conducted weekly classes known as Bible Education Ministry, targeting the youngest public school students. The court, in ruling in FFRF’s favor against such religious instruction, said, “This is not a close case. Since 1948, it has been very clear that the First Amendment does not permit the State to use its public school system to ‘aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines.’” (1) In a Mississippi case, the court found that “A Biblical History of the Middle East” class violated the Establishment Clause (2), noting that it was significant that the bible was the only text used in the course and that the tests were given based solely on the bible text.
These classes are challenged so often because they rarely comply with the law. In 2007, Texas passed a law mandating bible classes. In 2013, Dr. Mark A. Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University (3), conducted a study of these classes and found that many bible courses in Texas schools “are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views.” (4) The study surveyed 57 public school districts with bible courses and found that course materials were of low academic quality, and that “many of [these materials] are written specifically for Christian audiences for the purpose of strengthening their faith.” (5) This one-sided teaching is an endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment.
It is very difficult to teach the bible objectively and critically, as the First Amendment would require. For instance, would Christian parents want their public schools teaching that the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin is based on a simple mistranslation? The Hebrew word almah, meaning “young girl,” not virgin, was mistranslated into Greek as parthenos, “virgin,” even though there is a different Hebrew word for virgin.
We urge you to encourage your elected officials to refrain from subjecting students to classes that are likely to violate their First Amendment right and to expose school districts to serious legal and financial liability. Public schools exist to educate, not to indoctrinate. The difficulty of preventing teachers from imposing their personal religious agendas and of ensuring objectivity inevitably leads to litigation whose expenses can be disastrous for public schools. Religion in schools is innately divisive; its presence builds walls between children, which invariably leads to bullying and persecution, as is well documented in the court cases cited.
(1) Doe v. Porter, 188 F.Supp.2d 904, 914 (E.D. Tenn. 2002), aff’d, 370 F.3d 55
8 (6th Cir. 2004) (quoting Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Educ., 333 U.S. 203, 211 (1948)).
(2) Herdahl v. Pontotoc Cty. Sch. Dist., 933 F.Supp. 582 (N.D. Miss. 1996).
(3) Dr. Chancey has a Ph.D. from Duke in the New Testament and Early Judaism. He is the author of The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (2002) and Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (2005), and the coauthor of Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible with Yale University Press (2012). His reports have been published in the journals Religion & Education, Journal of Church and State, Religion and American Culture, and Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Chancey now serves as a member of the editorial boards of Religion & Education and Teaching the Bible.
(4) Mark A. Chancey, Texas Freedom Network, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-12 viii-ix (2013), http://www.tfn.org/site/DocServer/TFNEF_ReadingWritingReligionII.pdf?docID=3481.
(5) Id. at 13.