NASHVILLE, Tenn. The Tennessee Board of Education has approved guidelines on how to teach the Bible in public high schools even though there’s concern the curriculum could be challenged in court.
The guidelines approved last week are in response to 2008 legislation, which authorized the state to create a course for a “nonsectarian, nonreligious academic study of the Bible.”
State officials said they tried to develop principles that are safe from legal challenge. But some say a state-approved Bible course could violate church and state separation, depending on who is teaching it.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee responded to concerns about religious activities in state public schools by sending out its guide “Know Your Rights: Religion in Public Schools” to schools systems across the state.
Hedy Weinberg, the state’s ACLU director, told The Tennessean that the state seemed sensitive to concerns that the classes could be used to try to convert individuals. However, there are few details on how the classes will be run.
“Whether these classes are constitutional depends on who teaches them and how they are taught,” she said. “The devil is in the details.”
Board member Richard Ray voted in favor of the standards but said he was concerned potential lawsuits could create a distraction for schools.
“We have so much that needs to be done to elevate our kids in math and science, the focus of education should be right there,” he said.
Kent Richards, Old Testament professor at Emory University and executive director of the Society for Biblical Literature, has spent the past five years developing guides for teaching the Bible in public schools. He worked with Tennessee on this course.
Richards and state officials agree that the focus must shift to properly training educators who will teach the course.
“One of the important things is that teachers are teaching about the Bible and not professing some religion or professing that the Bible is the only road to take,” Richards said. “That’s what every school and every school attorney is concerned about, not crossing that line.”
The course which will teach students about the content of the Bible and its historical context is an elective, meaning high schools can choose whether to offer it to students as a social studies credit, and students can decide whether to take it.
Before the state-approved curriculum, school districts could develop and offer their own courses on the Bible, and some of those still do. State social studies specialist Brenda Ables said the legislation actually complicates the issue because it doesn’t require districts with existing Bible courses to convert to the state’s curriculum.
“We think we’ve gotten this curriculum written to meet all guidelines that would uphold court challenges,” she said. “Those schools who had their own curriculum and were already teaching it will continue to do so until somebody tells them they can’t.”