By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.”
–Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963) (Justice Clark)
“The nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught. . . . If we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.”
-Steve Green, Templeton Biblical Values Award acceptance speech, April 15, 2013.
The three children of Edward and Sidney Schempp attended public school in Abington, Pennsylvania in the 1950s. A Pennsylvania statute in effect at the time mandated that, “At least ten verses of the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.” The readings were followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Mr. and Mrs. Schempp, as practicing Unitarians, objected that various doctrines contained in the readings violated their religious beliefs and sought to enjoin the exercises as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the Pennsylvania law violated the principle of “strict neutrality” required under the First Amendment. Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
But while the Court found the statute unconstitutional due to its openly sectarian character, it emphasized that its ruling did not preclude entirely the use of the bible as a valuable educational source. “Nothing we have said here indicates that the study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” 374 U.S. at 225. The test of constitutionality, said the Court, is whether a statute has “a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion.” 374 U.S. at 222.
In the years since the Schempp decision, a variety of academic programs incorporating the bible have been successfully implemented in public schools in a number of states. But there is about to be one more, and the early indications are that this one won’t pass constitutional muster. The bible curriculum is the newest project of Steve Green, the President and CEO of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the company currently contesting the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate in the U.S. Supreme Court. And the school board in Mustang, Oklahoma, only a few miles from Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, has already voted to offer the course as an elective at Mustang High School in the fall of this year, despite the fact that the proposed textbook has yet to be made publicly available for review. Mustang school superintendent Sean McDaniel has defended the decision, stating that the curriculum “has been through a rigorous review to check for bias and ensure the content is neutral.” He also says that more than 170 students have already indicated a desire to take the course.
Mr. McDaniel’s enthusiasm is premature, because there is mounting evidence that the proposed course will be largely a primer on conservative evangelical Christianity that, despite its likely popularity in Mustang, will be unable to survive a constitutional challenge.
No one can doubt the religious sincerity of the Green family. It has amassed the largest collection of bibles and biblical artifacts in the world, more than 40,000 items. The collection is to be housed in a multi-million dollar museum scheduled to open in Washington, D.C. in 2017. The family has also formed what is known as the Green Scholars Initiative, described on its web site as an organization of “the world’s leading textual scholars to research and produce scholarship around items in The Green Collection while mentoring students in their respective fields of expertise.” But the Green family’s intense commitment to its own brand of fundamentalism does not lend itself to the development of a detached, academic study of biblical topics.
Consider first Steve Green’s own words. Mr. Green was awarded the Templeton Biblical Values Award in 2013. In his acceptance speech given on April 15th of last year he discussed the Green Scholars Initiative and his desire to develop a bible curriculum for public schools, a curriculum which he wishes to become “mandatory” for high school students in the years ahead. And the goal? “The book that we have is a reliable historical document,” he said. “When we present the evidence, the evidence is overwhelming. … Discovery after discovery supports the history, the accuracy of this book.” (Mr. Green’s speech is available in its entirety on You Tube).
The mission statement included in the 501(c)(3) tax filings of the proposed bible museum confirms Mr. Greens insistence on the literal truth of the bible. It reads, “To bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the bible.” The chief operating officer of the new museum is Cary Summers, who also served as a consultant for the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
The Green Scholars Initiative, under whom the bible curriculum has been developed, does include some distinguished scholars, but the list is heavily weighted toward evangelicalism and Calvinism. Catholic, Jewish and secular scholars are absent from the list of participants in the initiative.
Most damning of all to Mr. Green’s promise of a non-sectarian course, however, is the textbook itself, a draft copy of which was recently secured by the Freedom From Religion Foundation from an anonymous source. The textbook is based solely upon the Protestant biblical canon, and published excerpts reflect a narrative which is biased and fundamentalist. For example, a section entitled “Bible History” opens with the headline, “How Do We Know That the Bible’s Historical Narratives Are Reliable?” Another section lists the “Holy Grail” and “Noah’s Ark” as “Secrets from Biblical Times Yet to Be Discovered,” as though archeologists merely need to redouble their efforts to confirm these additional truths.
Is the anonymously leaked textbook fraudulent? I have no way of knowing. But it is certainly consistent with the religious views of the Green family. And it certainly fails to meet the requirements of the Establishment Clause.
Sources: “The Ark Encounter Q & A,” http://www.answersingenesis.org (March 14, 2011); Grelan Muse, Sr., “Hobby Lobby president to receive business honor from Bible organization,” Inside the Pew (March 1, 2013); “Hobby Lobby President Steve Green wins Templeton Biblical Values Award,” http://www.wn.com (April 20, 2013); Jon Watje, “School district considers adding Bible course,” http://www.mustangpaper.com (November 13, 2013); Norma Caplan-Bricker, “The Hobby Lobby President Is Also Building a Bible Museum for Over $70 Million,” New Republic (March 25, 2014); Michael Gryboski, “Okla. School District Approves Hobby Lobby’s President’s Bible Course,” The Christian Post (April 16, 2014); Mary O’Hara, “Oklahoma School’s ‘Hobby Lobby Bible Curriculum’ Raises Bias Concerns,” http://www.news.vice.com (April 19, 2014); Hemant Mehta, The (First) 7 Problems with the Hobby Lobby Bible Curriculum,” patheos.com (April 25, 2014); http://www.greenscholarsinitiative.org
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