House Bill 128, signed by Gov. Matt Bevin in June, gives public schools’ site-based decision-making councils the option to create Bible literacy courses as a part of social studies curriculum for students in grade nine and up. Under the law, any courses would be electives, not requirements.
What’s the Bible doing in public schools?
According to the Kentucky Department of Education website, the purpose of these courses is to “focus on the historical impact and literary style from texts of the Old Testament or New Testament era, including the Hebrew Scriptures.”
The law requires that the courses maintain “religious neutrality” and accommodate “the diverse religious views, traditions and perspectives of students in the school.”
The bill was sponsored and penned by Republican Rep. D.J. Johnson of Owensboro.
According to Johnson, he was approached by several constituents to sponsor such a bill, so he looked into the issue.
“In recent years, it has become fashionable to try to ignore the fact that the Bible did, in fact, play an important role in the development of not only the United States of America but much of western civilization,” Johnson said. “This trend is denying students the opportunity to fully understand this fact.”
Always available, now there are guidelines
Some schools have offered Bible literacy classes in the past as an English elective, said Nancy Rodriguez, Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman. Legally, schools are free to offer elective courses on the Bible or other religious texts.
House Bill 128, Johnson said, will “provide guidance and assistance” to school systems that want to offer Bible elective courses.
[Jefferson County Public Schools SBDMs have amended curriculum to include literacy classes, according to a spokeswoman.]
Boone County Schools Superintendent Randy Poe said the district’s high school SBDM councils have offered such courses in the past.
“When there is enough enrollment for a class it is taught,” he said. “If not enough enrollment for the elective – then it is not.”
Several other Northern Kentucky school leaders have said their SBDM councils will also consider offering Bible literacy electives if there is enough interest among students.
“Since it, an SBDM Council decision regarding which courses to offer at a school, our high school will consider the Bible literacy courses along with other electives as they determine what to list in the course catalog for next year,” Fort Thomas Schools Superintendent Karen Cheser said.
Kenton County Schools spokeswoman Jess Dykes said: “It’s a site-based decision-making council decision that will be based on need.”
According to Rodriguez, there is no way to track how many schools will offer the Bible literacy electives.
“It is a local decision and the department does not track that information,” she said. “However, it is expected the schools that have been offering these classes will continue to do so.”
Rodriguez said, so far, the department has not received any positive or negative feedback regarding the electives.
Fear for freedom of religion
American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky communications director Amber Duke said the ACLU has “fears about unconstitutional activity going on in the classroom” in light of this bill’s passage.
“It is possible to have a constitutionally sound curriculum that is taught in an unconstitutional manner,” she said. “To date, we haven’t seen any guidelines or direction from the Department of Education on the standards for these courses, required teacher qualifications and professional development training.”
According to Duke, the ACLU reached out to the Kentucky Department of Education earlier this year to seek copies of such materials for review, but they were not ready.
“We will continue to closely follow and monitor the implementation of the courses,” she said.
Duke said that the ACLU of Kentucky conducts Establishment Clause violation investigations across the commonwealth on a fairly regular basis. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“The issues in recent years have ranged from religious displays in public schools around Easter, teacher and coach-led prayer during sporting events, and in one instance a school science or history field trip to the Creation Museum,” she said. “Our most recent major investigation involving religion in public schools was a few years back when we looked into the distribution of Gideons Bibles during class.”
The civil liberties organization’s primary concern is making sure no Kentuckians’ rights are infringed upon, Duke said.
“In the case of the Bible, or other religious materials, it may be taught in public school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document,” she said.
Johnson, the Kentucky bill’s sponsor, said he doesn’t see the courses infringing upon anyone’s religious freedom.
“The courses will provide a historical perspective on the influence the Bible has had in our history,” he said. “They will not encourage devotion to any particular religious beliefs, nor will it detract from any particular religious beliefs.”
Bible courses sweeping the nation?
According to an article published on USAToday.com, lawmakers across the country have made a push to encourage the creation of Bible literacy courses in recent years. Since 2000, more than a third of states have tried to pass some sort of legislation supporting Bible courses, and six states have been successful.
Kentucky lawmakers have tried to push similar bills in the past, including last year, when the bill breezed through the Republican-controlled Senate but died in the Democratic-controlled House.
This year, with both chambers controlled by the Republicans, House Bill 128 was approved by the House in a vote of 80-14 and passed the Senate with a 34-4 vote. Johnson said the results were “encouraging.”
“The votes demonstrated that members on both sides of the political aisle understand the benefits of providing information to high school students about the positive influence the Bible had on the development of our Constitution,” he said.
“Whether one believes that the Bible is the inherent word of God, or merely a centuries-old book, the influence of the Bible on our society, particularly during the framing of our Constitution, is undeniable,” Johnson said. “We owe it to our students to give them the opportunity to learn about the historical significance of the Bible in our society.”