The Oklahoma State Senate will be considering HB 2321 which authorizes public schools to teach classes on the Bible. The Constitution does permit such classes when they are properly structured. The Bible has considerable significance in Western literature and art. Such classes can be valuable when taught in an academic, critical and historical manner. It cannot be taught in public schools in the devotional manner that is used in most Bible schools and Sunday School classes.
Unfortunately, Bible classes are often implemented in unconstitutional ways. Teachers are not constitutional scholars. They need training to make sure they do not end up violating the Constitution and thereby expose their school districts to litigation.
Here are some essential points to remember as prepared by Dena Sher, the State Legislative Counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State:
The Constitution requires that --
~ Courses must present the Bible in a secular, objective, and academic manner,
and not present the Bible as literal, religious truth.
~ Courses must not present a particular sectarian point of view.
~ Courses must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of biblical interpretations.
~ Teachers must be selected in the same manner as all other teachers, based upon their academic qualifications, rather than their religious beliefs or nonbeliefs.
~ Teachers must not be selected by an outside committee that selects teachers based upon their religious beliefs.
In order to avoid costly lawsuits, the State must help teachers and school districts meet the challenge presented by teaching the Bible constitutionally --
~ The Board of Education should develop training materials that will instruct
districts and teacher about the constitutional requirements.
~ The State should require school districts to submit reports on who is teaching the classes, how many students enrolled, and the curriculum taught.
The bill would mandate that the courses’ primary text would be a parallel translation Bible. These sorts of Bibles generally include translations that are predominantly used within more conservative Protestant traditions. This would violate the constitutional requirements that Bible courses be taught in a religiously neutral manner and that students learn a diversity of biblical interpretations. This bill has the obvious purpose and would have the effect of promoting one particular view of Christianity, which is unconstitutional under both the US Constitution and Sec. II-5 of the Oklahoma Constitution prohibiting the expenditure of public money to advance religion.
Authorizing comparative religion classes would be a sounder solution both educationally and constitutionally. Teaching one version of one religion’s Bible is likely to lead to unconstitutional indoctrination or favoritism of one religion over others in the classroom. Comparative religion classes, however, teach students important information about religion, but are less fraught with constitutional dangers.
When teaching students about various religions and views, teacher are less likely to teach certain religious beliefs as truth, while disparaging others, or proselytize certain religious beliefs.