Two bills intended to provide for the teaching of the Bible in Oklahoma public schools have been referred to committees for further discussion. According to Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, the principal author of House Bill 2321, both pieces of legislation are expected to move to conference sometime this week.
The Senate's version is Senate Bill 1338, authored by Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, who said the bill had been referred back to committee because of input from all over the state.
"The broad overview is that we're still working on curriculum requirements," Ivester said. "We received a lot of comments, many from local churches around the state, about specifying a curriculum. People were concerned about that, so the language is going to change again."
The original bill did not specify curriculum, and it tasked the Attorney General with reviewing the curriculum for constitutional appropriateness. The second version removed the Attorney General's oversight and specified curriculum distributed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.
The House bill called only on the State Textbook Committee to choose curriculum consistent with the conditions set forth in the legislation, which include a nondevotional approach to the Bible, a nonsectarian approach and the prohibition of doctrinal instruction.
Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, wrote an amendment that substituted the phrase "Christian Bible" wherever the word "Bible" appeared in the original House bill. The amendment passed, and according to Cannaday, the bill's author considered it a friendly amendment.
"I don't understand the people who voted against it," Cannaday said. "The rationale behind the amendment was that I presented the bill to a school superintendent in my district, and he was concerned that the language in the original neutralized the Bible. He was concerned that the faith of a young student who had grown up believing the Bible is the wholly inspired word of God would be damaged."
Cannaday said he searched the term "Bible" online and was surprised to find "generic" references to other books.
"I found a variety of terms," he said, "including Torah and Book of Mormon. His (the superintendent's) fear was that it would be taught in that manner."
Rep. Wallace Collins, D-Norman, one of nine representatives who voted against HB 2321, said of several concerns, his main objection is that teaching the Bible in public schools is already legal.
"This is already being done in Oklahoma schools," Collins said. "I have a friend who used to teach a course at Southeast High School. The course was eventually dropped due to lack of interest."
He said that he pressed the bill's author during discussions, especially which version of the Bible schools would use. "He replied, 'Any of them,'" Collins said. "I asked if the Book of Mormon would qualify, and he told me the Book of Mormon would be allowed. I find that ironic, inasmuch as The Baptist Messenger has a story in the recent issue of a Southern Baptist minister whose job it is to convert Mormons to Christianity."
Collins said he's also worried about issues related to the separation of church and state. "The goal of the bill is supposedly to present the Bible in schools as a great book of literature, but I believe it will change into a religion class," he said. "I know human nature, and I don't think teachers can resist proselytizing."
Russ said the bill provides for teaching the Bible as literature, but does not prevent it from being taught as history or as the source of American morals and values.
"People have had their children or their family members move through the educational process, only to find that there are ambiguities in the way this information is presented," Russ said. "This bill allows schools to represent our American heritage from a Christian, biblical perspective without fear of retribution, and I think they should be able to do so. It wasn't Hinduism or Buddhism that motivated the move to these shores. It was Christianity and the desire to worship freely. At the same time, we don't want this to be an 'in your face' thing about Christianity."
This is the kind of language that concerns Collins.
"I think that people tend to think, 'Everyone is just like me,' and that's not true," he said. "We are very diverse. I myself am Catholic, not that that matters, but I don't know how this doesn't become a chance to proselytize. I think that instead of a full-frontal assault (on church/state separation), they're just nibbling around the edges." "Greg Horton
photo Rep. Todd Russ bottom, author of a bill to add Bible education to school curriculum