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Protecting Religious Freedom

Reading Writing and Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools

Executive Summary
(available as .pdf)

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in teaching Bible courses in public schools, especially in Texas. If presented within guidelines established by the courts to protect religious freedom, such courses can be an excellent and desirable way to help students understand the unique importance of the Bible in history and literature. As this new report from the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund shows, however, teaching the Bible in Texas public schools is currently fraught with problems. Reading, Writing and Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools reveals that, with a few notable exceptions, the public school courses currently taught in Texas often fail to meet minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications, curriculum, and academic rigor; promote one faith perspective over all others; and push an ideological agenda that is hostile to religious freedom, science and public education itself.

FINDINGS

This report’s findings can be grouped into four broad categories.

Most Bible courses taught in Texas public schools fail to meet even minimal standards for teacher qualifications and academic rigor.

Most Bible courses in Texas have teachers with no academic training in biblical, religious or theological studies. In fact, local clergy teach the courses in some districts. Moreover, the level of academic rigor in the courses varies tremendously from district to district. High school classes in which the Bible is the only textbook and videos (including cartoons) make up the primary instructional tools are not uncommon. In addition, student activities and test questions often range from the mundane such as memorizing Bible verses to the trivial, such as this question in a student exercise in a Houston-area school district: “Approximately how many animals were on [Noah’s] ark the size of a rhesus monkey?”

Most Bible courses are taught as religious and devotional classes that promote one faith perspective over all others.

The vast majority of Texas Bible courses, despite their titles, do not teach about the Bible in the context of a history or literature class. Instead, the courses are explicitly devotional in nature and reflect an almost exclusively Christian perspective of the Bible. They assume that students are Christians, that Christian theological claims are true and that the Bible itself is divinely inspired all of which are inappropriate in a public school classroom, according to the Constitution.

In most cases the instructional materials, especially those produced or recommended by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS), betray an obvious bias toward a view of the Bible held by fundamentalist Protestants. As a result, those courses teach perspectives and interpretations of the Bible that are simply not shared by many mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews or within the scholarly community.

Examples abound (citations available in the report text and on file at TFNEF ):

1. support for a literal biblical view of a 6,000-year-old Earth, a six-day creation and the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans;
2. belief that recent events confirm that the apocalyptic return of Christ at the “end of days” is imminent;
3. promotion of Christian readings of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament passages as prophetic of Jesus; 4. suggestions that the creation story of Adam and Eve divinely ordains an inferior role for women in society; and
5. assertions that Christianity supersedes or “completes” Judaism.

Most Bible courses advocate an ideological agenda that is hostile to religious freedom, science and public education itself.

Texas Bible courses regularly promote creationism and other forms of pseudo-science. Some teachers, for example, present videos and lectures from the Creation Science Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. That “museum” advocates a six-day creation, a 6,000-year-old Earth and the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans. Another example of the kind of pseudo-science that one encounters in some Bible courses is the suggestion that perceived racial differences (such as personality and character traits) among humans can be traced back to Noah’s sons and their descendants after the Great Flood. This racist theory was commonly used to justify slavery and discrimination against African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Moreover, Bible courses often foster notions of American identity as distinctively Christian, sometimes introducing themes from the so-called “culture wars.” Many of the materials used to back up such assertions come from the NCBCPS as well as videos and other materials from WallBuilders, a Texas-based organization dedicated to proving that separation of church and state in this country is a myth. One district uses WallBuilders’ America’s Godly Heritage, a video so inaccurate in its content and so unabashedly sectarian in its goals that one federal court has prohibited its use in public schools.

A handful of Texas school districts show that it is possible to teach Bible courses in an objective and nonsectarian manner appropriate to public school classrooms.

Three school districts Leander, North East (San Antonio) and Whiteface have managed to avoid many, if not all, of the concerns raised by this report. Aspects of each district’s course provide examples of how public schools might teach about the Bible in a legally and academically sound manner that is respectful toward the biblical material and the diverse religious sensibilities and backgrounds of students.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The problems identified in this report need not be permanent nor are they inherent to any public school Bible course. This report makes five recommendations to help school districts teach appropriate courses about the Bible’s influence on history and literature:

1. School districts should adhere to guidelines proposed by the First Amendment Center The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide. These guidelines have been endorsed by 20 religious and educational groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and other Christian, Jewish and Islamic organizations.

2. The process by which local school boards decide to offer Bible courses and choose the curricula for those courses should be open and transparent and invite the full participation of parents and other citizens from the community.

3. School districts should make sure that teachers have the appropriate academic background and sufficient training on the legal issues involving the teaching of Bible and religion-related courses in public schools.

4. Classes should avoid relying primarily on sectarian resources for student readings, teacher preparation, videos, and other course components. Course materials surveyed for this study suggest that the religious claims of such resources are often presented to students as statements of fact.

5. School officials should regularly monitor the content of Bible courses to ensure that they are academically and legally appropriate.