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.