Church-State Fiasco Looms in Texas

August 20, 2009


Educators in Wichita Falls, Texas, may not welcome my praise. But they've done the right thing in deciding not to offer a state-mandated elective course on the Bible for high schoolers. According to media accounts (including ), a 2007 state law required high schools to offer an elective course on the Bible's impact on history and Western literature. To make sure the classes would be taught in an "objective, academic manner that neither promotes nor disparages religion," the law mandated what the Austin American-Statesman described as "teacher training" and "state-approved training materials." Then the legislature failed to budget $750,000 to produce any of those things. The law goes into effect this fall, commanding school districts to offer the courses even though the state didn't come through with the things the same law says the districts need before they can create the courses.

Teaching about the Bible in public schools is a church-state minefield. Even if the curriculum and materials stick to historical and literary matters, there is wide latitude for individual teachers to turn the classes into forums for evangelizing. The Council for Secular Humanism believes that the Bible is too hot for public schools to handle unless curricula are designed and carried out with the greatest of care. That's just the opposite of what happened in Texas.

If I had a ten-gallon hat, I'd also tip toward Austin schools, where educators announced that they didn't need to offer the electives because existing history and geography courses already deal with world religions. I don't know whether that's true or just an ingenious dodge, but either way it's very, very smart.

Other school districts are playing a dangerous game, say media accounts. They're cobbling together their own elective Bible courses, notwithstanding the state's reported failure to provide good guidelines. The result is predictable: thousands of Texas schoolchildren will have their civil rights trampled when teachers teach Bible courses that champion religion over irreligion … or Christianity over other world religions … or the Southern Baptist Conference over other Christian sects. Another prediction: lots of Texas school districts who can't afford it will burn through thousands of dollars that ought to go toward books, computers, even footballs -- money that will be spent on lawyers instead.

The Bible elective in Texas may be the most perfectly confounded church-state snafu I've seen. It's a recipe for violating religious freedom and busting school district budgets. Yet it's so easily avoided. More Texas school districts should be like Wichita Falls and just say no, or like Austin and find a credible-sounding excuse.


#1 Keith Harrison (Guest) on Friday August 21, 2009 at 11:34am

Stunts like these always make me ponder why Christians are so desperate to force their message into schools. It smacks of enormous insecurity. Are they afraid that Christianity will otherwise recede into oblivion? If so, I hope their fears are well-founded.

#2 William Bell (Guest) on Friday August 21, 2009 at 6:16pm

Who cares?

#3 ckoproske on Sunday August 23, 2009 at 8:05am

Teaching ‘the Bible’s impact on our history and government’ is not only a church-state minefield, it’s bound to be just flat-out factually incorrect.  The people behind this initiative are the same people who think our nation was essentially built on a foundation made of Bibles and Evangelical Christianity; and more importantly, that it’s essential that children learn to associate things like freedom, the rule of law, and democracy with Christianity (NOT liberalism or so-called ‘human rights’)

Just like the Intelligent Design movement, this movement should be cast aside not only by exposing the motivations of its proponents and its constitutional missteps, but also by its plain falsity as academic material.

#4 William Bell (Guest) on Sunday August 23, 2009 at 11:10am

There is no denying Christianity’s impact on the development of history, especially Western history, for the past 2,000 years. There is nothing inherrently illegal about teaching about the Bible because the mere teaching about the history of a religion does not constitute an establishment of religion. If a school decides to offer an optional course in Biblical history there’s nothing wrong with that because nobody is being forced to believe or practice a religion. State funded around the country offer courses on Biblical history, Koran history, etc.

#5 liberalartist on Wednesday August 26, 2009 at 9:42am

I’m all for teaching about world religions. I took that class in college and it opened my eyes to the truth of religions - they are all similar yet different, and each claims to be the truth, so they are all man-made and not real. But, that was a college with academic integrity. I am skeptical that a school in rural Texas teaching about the bible will actually be academic in any way, but will instead be a form of bible-study/sunday school sermon.

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