More information on Iowa H.F. 2031

H.F. 2031 purports to teach the bible in a neutral way, to “provide students with knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives.” However, there is substantial reason to doubt that this bill would lead to religiously neutral high school biblical classes.

Three biblical scholars at three different public Iowa universities — Dr. Hector Avalos (Iowa State), Dr. Kenneth Atkinson (University of Northern Iowa) and Dr. Robert R. Cargill (University of Iowa) — have sent a letter to the House Education Committee explaining multiple problems with H.F. 2031. These are Ph.D. academics who have dedicated their careers to objectively teaching the bible in public schools.

As their letter points out, H.F. 2031 “opens the door for teachers, most of whom have little or no training in academic biblical studies, to impose their personal religious opinions about the bible upon students.” Many high school teachers will wrongly assume that their interpretation of the bible is universally accepted and uncontroversial.

In fact, biblical interpretation has fluctuated wildly over time, typically catching up to society’s moral standards decades or centuries behind schedule. High school history teachers are ill-equipped to see past their own Sunday school education to present a truly neutral, objective biblical history.

In fact, the bill’s supporters have indicated that a revisionist, ahistorical version of biblical studies is precisely what they have in mind. State Sen. Brad Zaun says, “Today, we are raising generations of children ignorant of the origin of core American values that should unite us, such as the historically radical, but biblically inspired ideal that all people have inherent worth and equality and are ‘endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’”

It is absurd to suggest that the bible, which condones genocide and slavery, deserves credit for American ideals of inherent human worth and equality. As the biblical scholars opposing this bill underline, “Biblical authors and Christians throughout history have held widely divergent opinions on what any ‘inherent worth’ or ‘equality’ meant. Historically, the Bible has been used to support slavery as well as abolition. Some biblical authors supported genocide and the destruction of other religions, while others supported inclusivity and peace.” Iowa legislators have no intent to provide this objective history to public school students.

The biblical scholars also emphasize that “this bill does not even define what bible will be taught in the public classrooms. Will this bill teach the Catholic Bible, with its books like 1 Maccabees and Sirach? Or, will it teach the Protestant Christian Bible that does not teach these books to be part of the Christian canon? The mere question of which Christian bible will be taught in public classrooms necessarily requires sectarian theological judgments be made before we even read a single word.”

Finally, this law would be ripe for abuse even if the above problems were fixed. Some public school teachers will unquestionably view a bible class as a green light to deliberately present their personal religious beliefs as fact to vulnerable students. This will likely lead to a losing lawsuit for a school district, which could cost schools hundreds of thousands of dollars.

FFRF has successfully stopped other illegal bible classes, including a recent court case stopping long-standing bible class in Mercer County in West Virginia, a class in Mustang, Okla. in 2014, and in Dayton, Tenn., in 2006.

Freedom From Religion Foundation