AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas State Board of Education gave final approval late last week to establishing elective Bible classes in public high schools, rejecting calls to draw specific teaching guidelines and warnings it could lead to constitutional problems in the classroom.
The Legislature passed a law in 2007 allowing Bible courses to be offered as an elective. They are supposed to focus on the history and literature of the Bible without preaching or disparaging any faith.
State officials are still waiting for an attorney general’s ruling on whether the classes must be offered to students or left to school districts to decide.
Critics say the board’s 10-5 vote July 18 doesn’t provide specific guidelines to help teachers and school districts avoid a First Amendment clash over freedom of religion.
“This is what happens when our elected officials put politics and personal agendas ahead of the interests of our school children and their families,” said Ryan Valentine, deputy director Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the influence of religion in public policy.
Supporters countered schools will have all the constitutional guidance they need. The purpose of the classes is to teach biblical content and its context in modern society, including culture, art and public policy.
The adopted rule follows broad guidelines used for English and social studies classes that say students must be able to use critical thinking skills to evaluate information and communicate what they’ve learned in written, oral or visual forms.
The rule specifically says courses should follow applicable law and “all federal and state guidelines in maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating the diverse religious views, traditions, and perspectives of students in their school district.”
Courses shall not “endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective,” the rule says.
“I think that’s pretty specific,” said Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Free Market Foundation. “The constitutional safeguards are there.”
But critics maintain they’re not enough.
Mark Chancey, associate professor in religious studies at Southern Methodist University, has studied Bible classes already offered in about 25 districts for the Texas Freedom Network.
The study found most of the courses were explicitly devotional with almost exclusively Christian, usually Protestant, perspectives.
It also found that most were taught by teachers with no academic training in biblical, religious or theological studies and who were not familiar with the issues of separation of church and state.
“Some classes promote creation science. Some classes denigrate Judaism. Some classes explicitly encourage students to convert to Christianity or to adopt Christian devotional practices,” Chancey said. “This is all well documented, and the board knows it.”
State Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office weighed in on the general guidelines earlier this month, saying they pass constitutional muster. Abbott’s office wouldn’t guarantee, however, that a specific course would be constitutional because none have yet been proposed or reviewed.
“By this letter we conclude that courses taught in accordance with applicable Texas law and the SBOE’s proposed (curriculum) ... appear to be facially valid under the First Amendment of the United State’s Constitution,” wrote Andrew Weber, deputy attorney general for legal counsel.
Among the questions Abbott’s office has yet to answer is whether public high schools must offer a Bible course if requested by at least 15 students, a threshold mentioned in the law establishing the courses. But the law was unclear if the class would then be mandatory or optional for high schools to offer.