A group of North Dakota lawmakers — all Republicans — have introduced legislation that would require the state’s public schools to teach a unit on the Bible. The unit could be on the Old Testament, the New Testament, or a mix of the two, and would count toward students’ social studies credit requirements.
As blogger Hemant Mehta points out, the bill does not specify anything about how the courses would be taught or even whether they would be secular or objective. Nothing prevents the classes from being derived from Sunday school classes or other forms of Bible-based religious indoctrination.
This is not an exaggerated concern. In 2017, Kentucky passed a very similar law creating elective social studies courses on the Bible, specifying that such courses would teach content that is relevant and influential to contemporary society. It also clarified that such courses should maintain “religious neutrality.”
Besides the fact that no similar law calls for “neutral” study of religious texts from other religious traditions, the ACLU quickly found that Kentucky’s schools were straying far afield of such neutrality. It sent a letter last January to the Kentucky Board of Education outlining violations it had found in schools across the state. Materials in these courses proselytized to students, asked students to proselytize, and taught them to incorporate Bible texts into their own personal morality — some of which were pulled directly from Sunday School websites.
Students in different courses faced questions, “How are the virtues praised by the Book of Proverbs important character traits for society today?” or “What are some promises in the Bible that God gives everyone who believes in him?” Many students were required to simply memorize Bible verses without any instruction as to why they had literary or cultural significance. One teacher even informed students that the 2006 film The Exodus Decoded purportedly proves Biblical accounts using science.
“While it is not unconstitutional per se to teach schoolchildren about religion and religious texts,” the ACLU wrote, “when a course focuses on one religious text, such as the Bible, it is exceedingly difficult to implement the class within constitutional strictures. Any course addressing the Bible in public schools must be secular, objective, nondevotional, and must not promote any specific religious view.”
Last June, the Kentucky Board of Education responded by approving a narrow set of standards for the state’s Bible literacy classes. Those standards specify that courses should focus on concepts like analyzing the literary aspects of the Bible, assessing the interplay between the Bible and historical events, examining how the Bible has impacted society and culture.
The ACLU told ThinkProgress that it has not taken any additional specific steps in Kentucky, but is continuing to monitor the situation. It has, however, successfully challenged Bible classes in the past. A decade ago, the ACLU helped a group of parents bring a suit against a Texas school that was teaching a Bible course created by a private group with its own controversial interpretation of the Bible. It required students to answer “true” or “false” to questions of faith and presented unbalanced views of American history that promoted specific religious beliefs. The school agreed to stop teaching the course and follow strict legal standards should it attempt to teach a different Bible class in the future.
The Freedom From Religious Foundation is also currently challenging a Bible class that was being taught in a West Virginia district’s elementary and middle schools. The class taught that Adam and Eve coexisted with dinosaurs and included lessons like, “If all of the Israelites had chosen to follow the Ten Commandments, think of how safe and happy they would have been.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled just last month that the suit against the school could proceed even though the course is no longer being taught.
It’s unclear if the North Dakota legislation has any chance of passing. By establishing a mandatory course with no clear parameters for how it is taught, it will likely face great legal scrutiny.