FFRF to TEA: Halt “Glorified Sunday School” Classes (June/July 1995)

“Bible as history” classes being conducted in several Texas public school districts are unconstitutional, a national watchdog group has told the Texas Education Agency.

On behalf of its Texas membership, the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a formal complaint to Dr. Michael Moses, TEA Commissioner, calling the “experimental” courses an example of unconstitutional religious instruction in the public schools. The Foundation asked Moses, in mid-May, as well as members of the State Board of Education, to halt all bible-as-history courses in Texas schools by the 1995-96 school year, and to suspend bible-as-literature until curricula is overhauled to fit constitutional dictates.

The Foundation’s complaint was widely covered in Texas, also making the national wire. No response to the Foundation’s letter has been received to date. The letter outlining the Foundation’s concerns is reprinted below:

Dr. Michael Moses, Commissioner
Texas Education Agency
1701 N Congress Ave
Austin TX 78701

Dear Dr. Moses:

On behalf of our Texas membership, as well as complainants in Corpus Christi and Greenville, Texas, we are writing to ask that you and the Texas Education Agency halt the unconstitutional “bible as history” courses taught in Texas schools. Our complaint concerns both “experimental” courses for state credit with TEA approval–such as Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff, Kingsville, Longview, and Joshua, as well as “bible history” courses for local credit only such as in Greenville.

The current situation involves a direct violation of McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948), in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared religious instruction in public schools an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Furthermore, presenting the bible from Genesis to Revelation as “history” inevitably leads to a violation of Edwards v. Aguillard,482 U.S. 578, 96 L.Ed. 2nd 510, 107 S. Court 2573 (1987), which invalidates “equal time” for “creation science” in public schools. (See enclosed a copy from the Greenville syllabus with its lesson goal that the “student understand creation as found in Genesis”). Also violated is the intent of Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), since all the curricula in use in Texas require students to memorize the Ten Commandments, among many other devotional and inspirational (not historical) passages.

These courses not only offend the First Amendment and various court cases against religion in the public schools, but the Texas Constitution, which specifically states “no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship.” The TEA approves the teaching of “bible as history” but offers no balance, such as the “Koran as history” or (better yet) the “bible as myth.” There is no objective use of critical textbooks, assignments and outside speakers. The TEA demonstrates preference for the Christian Bible at the expense of the Hebrew Bible, the religious beliefs and “holy books” of all other faiths, and of course, in doing so shows preference for religion over nonreligion.

Art. 1, Sect. 6 also guarantees that citizens cannot be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship. It is clear in reading the Corpus Christi Independent School District’s bible survey course outline, as well as the antediluvian Bible Study Course being used in Greenville, that what we have under the guise of academics is Glorified Sunday School.

Most shocking, the study course used in Greenville actually was developed as a Sunday School curriculum!

Offering Sunday School courses for credit, state or local, establishes a religion by the state or local school board, turning publicly-supported schools into “places of worship” for the duration of these bible classes.

Approving bible-as-history classes for state credit compromises the neutrality of Texas public schools and is a dangerous precedent which cannot pass constitutional muster. The TEA, in approving the bible as history, might as well be saying that the bible is literally true. If the bible is “history,” then the story of creation is history (which means: a fact). Women come from a man’s rib and must submit to men. Languages come from the Tower of Babel. Joshua made the sun stand still, and the four corners of the earth are flat. Donkeys talked. The moon turned to blood. Angels and demons exist. Jesus really was born of a virgin to save the world and all who believe differently are condemned to eternal torture. Such instruction belongs in Sunday School, not in our public schools.

On April 11, 1995, Ann Smisko, Acting Associate Commissioner for Curriculum, Assessment and Technology, wrote us:

“In evaluating experimental course descriptions for Bible survey courses, agency staff is guided by language found in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in the Abington v. Schemppcase: ‘It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively [emphasis added] as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” She added: “Additionally, the course must have an academic focus that seeks to educate and inform students about the Bible without promoting or denigrating any religion.”

It obviously promotes a particular religion to assign students to read only one religion’s “holy book” and no others.

The TEA needs to be reminded that Justice Clark qualified his statement by saying such courses must be “presented objectively as part of a secular program.” Saying the bible has “historic qualities” is very different from saying that it should be taught as history. In fact, Clark introduced this topic by writing, “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion . . .” The TEA is not approving courses of comparative religion or the history of religion. It is approving Christian Bible study, and only Christian Bible study. It is treating all biblical and Christian claims as history. That would be like an English teacher winning state approval to teach the history of Zeus, premised on the assumption that Greek myths are historical, asking them to draw maps of Mt. Olympus, etc.

It is also significant that Abington was not a case about religious/bible study in school; it dealt with ritual observance through prayer and bible-reading. The operative Court decision on religious instruction in the public schools is the McCollum case. Justice Clark in Abington make his three-sentence aside after a careful affirmation of that 1948 landmark case. The TEA must look to and abide by McCollum as the Supreme Court precedent on religious instruction. . . .

There is no objectivity, no balance, certainly no suggestion to the students that what they are reading may not be literally true. Much has happened in biblical scholarship in the last two decades. Robert Funk and Roy Hoover of the prominent Jesus Seminar reported: “Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him . . . Not even the fundamentalists on the far right can produce a credible Jesus out of the allegedly inerrant canonical gospels. Their reading of who Jesus was rests on the shifting sands of their own theological constructions.” (The Five Gospels) Where is rigorous academic scholarship reflected or referred to? Where is the comparative religion? Where is the balance? Where is any modicum of academic objectivity?

If Texas students are studying the bible as history for credit, then they should be assigned Thomas Paine’s classic The Age of Reason. They should be reading Thomas Jefferson’s Jefferson Bible and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible, Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus and The Five Gospels, produced recently by the Jesus Seminar. They should be familiar with the history of the divisiveness caused by the bible, the endless schisms, doctrinal disputes and religious wars. They should study the bible’s traumatic impact on European, colonial and American history, such as the theocratic persecutions in the individual colonies, the witch hunts in Europe and Salem, the bible’s endorsement of slavery which contributed to the Civil War, the use of the bible to take away the birth right of the Native Americans. They should know about the bible-based opposition to suffrage and women’s rights, and to many other movements for social change throughout American history. They should be studying the history of state/church separation in the United States, and specifically the U.S. Supreme Court cases opposing bible reading and worship in the schools.

Please see our more detailed objections enclosed.

We respectfully request a prompt acknowledgment that our complaints will be investigated, and that bible-as-history courses in Texas schools will be discontinued for the 1995-1996 school year, in compliance with constitutional dictates.

Freedom From Religion Foundation