HOUSTON – The Lone Star state could become the first in the nation to require all public high schools to offer an elective course on the Bible if a bill currently pending in the Texas Legislature becomes law.
Hearings continued this week on the proposed legislation, which mandates that all Texas school districts teach courses on “the history and literature of the Old and New Testament eras” if at least 15 students sign up for it.
Rep. Warren Chisum, the west Texas lawmaker and Baptist Sunday school teacher who wrote the bill, said the course will not treat the Bible as a “worship document.” Rather, the class will promote religious and cultural literacy by “educating our students academically and not devotionally,” he said.
Although the bill says the classes are to be taught in “an objective and nondevotional manner,” it does not provide for state funding or special training for school districts and teachers. This is a problem because most high school teachers aren’t qualified to teach the Bible as a historical or literary text, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group.
“The fear is that teachers with limited training and no guidance will be called upon to teach a course for which their experience draws largely from Sunday school,” she said. “It would be difficult for them to keep their own religious perspective out of the classroom. You can almost hear the lawyers lining up.”
Chisum’s bill names the Bible the primary textbook for the class. Students may be asked but are not required to read secular books or those from other religions. Chisum dismisses critics who say that by using the Bible as the main text – instead of, for instance, a book about the Bible’s influence on history and literature – the bill favors a curriculum that’s more devotional than scholarly.
“It just makes sense to use the Bible if that’s the course that you’re talking about,” he said. “It’s the most available book in the world.”
The bill as written properly leaves Bible curriculum up to teachers and local school districts, said Julie Drenner, who testified Thursday for the bill on behalf of Texans for Family Values. “The best way for policing any education requirement is at our local school level, and any complaints are best heard by people at the local school level because they’re the ones elected and directly accountable to the people in their district.”
As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Chisum is the second-most powerful member of the Texas House. The bill is co-authored by 52 other House members.
In February, Chisum circulated an anti-evolution memo from a Georgia legislator that contained links to a Web site that discusses alleged international Jewish conspiracies. Chisum later apologized, saying that he had not read the handout carefully before distributing it to all 149 of his House colleagues.