Oklahoma Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, is the author of a bill working its way through the Senate that would establish general guidelines and legal oversight for elective Bible courses in Oklahoma public schools. SB 1338 received a "pass" recommendation from the education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 11 and is expected to be on the Senate floor for a vote within a couple of weeks.
That isn't the only legislation this session focusing on the Bible and education. House Bill 2321 was approved by the House education committee and will go to a vote of the full House. The legality of teaching the Bible in public schools for its "literary and historic qualities" was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 case Abington Township School District v. Schempp. Ivester said his bill was designed to "provide a framework for schools to offer elective Bible courses in a legal manner."
"The fact is that it's already legal to teach the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Bible in public schools," Ivester said. "The school districts simply don't know how to go about offering these courses, and in some cases they might be afraid of litigation."
Ivester said the feedback he has received has been mixed.
"I'd say it's been all over the map," he said. "People on the right are worried that schools won't teach the correct interpretation, and people on the left are saying we need to offer the Bible alongside other sacred texts, like the Quran. I just know that students would benefit from learning about the history and literature of the Bible. For example, reading Shakespeare requires some knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and Christian Bible."
While some Oklahoma educators support Biblical literacy, they are concerned about other issues that are tangential to the curriculum.
Jeff Brown is a seventh-grade science teacher in Oklahoma City, and his concerns are related to non-curricular material appearing in the classes.
"It's not a bad idea to offer a Bible course as an elective as long as it stays with history or literature," Brown said. "I'm concerned about possible cross-pollination with scripture and science. I'm very worried about evangelical high school teachers taking this course and inserting creationism or turning it into a non-ecumenical view of religious history."
Although Ivester's bill is written for high schools, one Oklahoma school district has been offering a Bible course for seventh-graders for three years, and the superintendent believes educators' concerns are misdirected.
Galeard Roper, the superintendent of Elk City Public Schools, said his district has had zero complaints since the course was first offered in his schools.
"The class is offered as a seventh-grade elective," Roper said, "and I'd guess about 10 percent of the students take it. We've not had a wrinkle since it started. The way we make sure that happens is that we tell the instructor that he absolutely cannot vary from the curriculum."
Elk City uses a curriculum from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a nonprofit organization whose board of directors includes actor Chuck Norris, former "The 700 Club" co-host Ben Kinchlow, and Elizabeth Ridenour. As president of the organization, Ridenour has stated the curriculum is "essentially a lesson in America's heritage."
If the bill passes, all curriculum would have to be approved by the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the state Attorney General. The bill also calls for the state Board of Education to approve curricular standards by Nov. 1, 2010, and to approve training materials by Dec. 1, 2010, so that courses can be added to school schedules for the beginning of the 2011-12 school year.
The bill calls for no additional funding, and much of the cost of materials will be absorbed by the students, as the primary textbook is the student's own Bible. The bill states that a student can bring his or her own version of the Bible.
Qualifications and requirements
One of the longest sections of the bill outlines the qualifications and requirements of proposed instructors, including expertise in the curriculum; understanding the Supreme Court rulings and constitutional law related to the subject; understanding how to present the material in "an objective, academic manner that neither promotes nor disparages religion"; and expertise in "how to avoid devotional content or proselytizing in the classroom."
Brown said he is skeptical of districts' ability to control proselytizing.
"Who will be teaching the course? What denomination? And what will the denomination of the students be? Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Unitarian? The chances of stepping on toes are very high," he said.
Sorting out the approaches to different translations or versions hasn't been discussed yet, and will likely be left up to the education department. Many Protestant Bibles are similar, but Catholics read a version that includes more books.
Jehovah's Witnesses use the New World Translation, a version in which key verses are different than standard Protestant translations. LDS church students read the Protestant Bible and the Book of Mormon.
Sorting through these issues will create what Brown called "a hornet's nest of controversy." "Greg Horton
Read a unit from the curriculum here (24 pages).