Texas lawmaker tries to make the Bible a school textbook

May 18, 2009

Bill would make the Bible a textbook
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Teachers would use the Bible as a secular text to teach Western culture under a bill in the House.

AUSTIN — The Book of Joshua commands that one meditate on the Bible “day and night.” A bill before the Texas House offers something a little less time-consuming: an elective high school class.

The bill’s author, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, said learning about the Bible is necessary to understanding America and Western culture.

“We need for people to know why we are the sort of country we are,” said Chisum, who teaches Sunday school at a Baptist church. “We ought to know where we come from and why we do what we do.”

The bill instructs teachers to teach the Bible from a secular point of view, Chisum said. No text other than the Bible would be required, according to the bill. School districts and students could chose which version to use, and teachers would not need special training, Chisum said.

Bible classes would be offered in the next school year if the bill becomes law.

Opponents question whether the Bible can be treated like another textbook in public, secular schools and whether teachers can offer unbiased instruction in a subject they may know only from their own religious backgrounds.

“Without the training, without the financial support they need [for training], school districts across Texas are going to be riddled with lawsuits,” said John Ferguson, a Baptist minister and constitutional scholar at Howard Payne University in Brownwood. “Everyone would rather you spend your money on textbooks and teachers rather than attorneys and court fees.”

Ferguson spoke at a news conference organized by the Texas Freedom Network, which often clashes with social conservatives on religious issues.

Kathy Miller, president of the network, said the bill would needlessly put the schools in the crosshairs of the culture wars.

“I’m concerned the bill can be used to play politics with God or to grandstand about the Bible,” she said.

Her group wants much tighter controls written into the bill to ensure that teacher training and scholarly reviews keep instruction secular to avoid trampling on religious instruction that parents might be nurturing at home.

Last year, the network produced a report on the effects of Texas’ existing law, which allows school districts the option of having a class on the Bible. The study found that only 25 of the more than 1,000 school districts offered a Bible class.

“Of those 25 school districts, 22 would not pass legal muster,” said Mark Chancey, assistant religion professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and author of the report. He said one teacher had a presentation titled “God’s roadmap for your life” that included a slide reading, “Jesus Christ is the one and only way.”

“This can be taught in a way that rips communities apart,” Chancey said.

But Ron Flowers thinks the bill might lead to students learning about the Bible in an enlightened way. Flowers, a retired professor of religion at Texas Christian University, still teaches a course on church-state relations there.

“I think the idea of teaching the Bible as literature, as a source of historical information and the like is not only constitutional, but a good idea,” Flowers said. “The Bible is a source of a tremendous amount of literary references. It’s the basis for a lot of historic references. It’s been a very formative document in Western history, and for students to be able to understand history and literature and the like, studying the Bible seems to be a good thing.”

Flowers said he thought Chisum’s bill is written well enough to stand up in court.

Terry Ann Kelly of Grapevine, whose children attend Grapevine-Colleyville schools, said she supports the bill.

“It’s really just teaching a book that has had an incredible influence not only in America but in the world,” said Kelly, who founded Students Standing Strong, a group of teachers and students that promotes Christianity. “I think it’s amazing that we haven’t spent more time teaching about a book that’s had so much influence worldwide.”

The Rev. Benjamin Cole, pastor of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, said he is wary about having untrained teachers take on the job of teaching Scripture.

“I cannot agree with a prescription that thrusts the handling of those texts by teachers who will be, in many circumstances, as biblically illiterate as the students they purport to teach,” Cole said.