Texas legislators have continued their battle to add religious training in public schools. The state has a new law that requires that Texas public schools incorporate Bible literacy into the curriculum — though it offers no guidelines or instructions in how to do so.
Various schools are now offering special elective classes on the Bible while others are incorporating Biblical passages into regular classes. This is made all the more difficult, of course, by the separation of Church and State. The legislators did not order literacy on the Qu’ran or Torah.
A litigator might suspect that the lack of instructions is an effort to diminish any vulnerability to a challenge. The optional aspect of course certainly would help in that regard. I have long stated that schools could teach about theology and that such a course could be educational rather than sectarian. It would have to incorporate a wide array of religious texts as well as an understanding of agnostic and atheist views. It is clear that these legislators did not have such a course in mind.
The provision requires that the curriculum include “religious literature, including the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and New Testament, and its impact on history and literature.” The use of “include” will likely be used to suggest that other faiths could be represented in the classes, though the express reference to the Judeo-Christian text makes it mandatory as opposed to discretionary for other faiths.” It is more specific in this portion of the law:
Sec. 28.011. ELECTIVE COURSES ON THE BIBLE’S HEBREW SCRIPTURES (OLD TESTAMENT) AND NEW TESTAMENT AND THEIR IMPACT ON THE HISTORY AND LITERATURE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION. (a) A school district may offer to students in grade nine or above:
(1) an elective course on the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and its impact and an elective course on the New Testament and its impact; or
(2) an elective course that combines the courses described by Subdivision (1).
(b) The purpose of a course under this section is to:
(1) teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; and
(2) familiarize students with, as applicable:
(A) the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament;
(B) the history of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament;
(C) the literary style and structure of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament; and
(D) the influence of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament on law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values, and culture.
(c) A student may not be required to use a specific translation as the sole text of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament and may use as the basic textbook a different translation of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament from that chosen by the board of trustees of the student’s school district or the student’s teacher.
(d) A course offered under this section shall 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. A course under this section shall not endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective. Nothing in this statute is intended to violate any provision of the United States Constitution or federal law, the Texas Constitution or any state law, or any rules or guidelines provided by the United States Department of Education or the Texas Education Agency.
It may not “intend to violate any provision of the United States Constitution or federal law” but civil libertarians would beg to differ on the ability of a state to require courses on the Bible.
The University of Texas has created a seminar to teach how to teach Biblical passages. They can go to various sites on how to teach Bible literacy.
Obviously, for civil libertarians, such programs smack of a certain Talibanization of education. It is certainly not as extreme. However, it is highly questionable from a constitutional standpoint to have a legislature order the teaching of a single religious text in an act of sectarian favoritism. It has schools struggling to satisfy the law and hopefully civil libertarian lawyers scrambling to challenge the law.