June 4 (UPI) -- A new law allowing public school districts to offer elective social studies classes on the Bible to students in ninth grade or above took effect this week in West Virginia.
The law -- as well as similar statutes introduced at state legislatures around the nation in recent years -- sparked a debate over whether the classes will be an objective study of the Bible's impact on American history or unconstitutional religious instruction, typically about Christianity.
Under the West Virginia law, county boards of education may offer courses that familiarize students with the Bible. The purpose is "to teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding the development of American society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy."
The courses have to maintain religious neutrality, accommodate diverse religious views and not favor or show hostility toward "any particular religion, nonreligious faith or religious perspective."
The bill authorizing the classes was passed 30-3 by the West Virginia Senate on March 4 after earlier approval by the House of Delegates in a 73-26 vote. It became law on Tuesday, 90 days after its passage.
An amendment offered by Sen. Stephen Baldwin that removed the word "Bible" from the bill and allowed courses on all sacred texts or comparative world religions ultimately failed.
Baldwin, pastor at Ronceverte Presbyterian Church and one of the three no votes, said he opposes the legislation because it specifies only certain texts for study -- the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament of the Bible and the New Testament of the Bible -- rather than all sacred texts.
In addition, Baldwin said, "I'm a pastor and it's important to me that my son learns about religion at his church, not at his school. I think this bill violates religious liberty."
The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia opposed the bill, saying the legislation would result in discrimination against religious minorities and expose schools to lawsuits. Eli Baumwell, the organization's policy director, said implementing a Bible class in a constitutional manner is always difficult.
"You're likely to end up with something that promotes religion," Baumwell told UPI.
Influence of sacred texts
In Missouri, a bill that would have allowed school districts to offer an elective social studies unit on the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament of the Bible and the New Testament of the Bible didn't make it through the Legislature before its regular session ended May 15. Like the West Virginia bill, it would require the course to maintain religious neutrality and not favor or show hostility toward any faith, nonreligious faith or religious perspective.
Proponents of the measure testified that no other sacred writings influenced the nation's founders as much as the Bible and that teaching those concepts would provide a perspective that is essential to the preservation of freedom, according to minutes of a legislative committee hearing.
But Brian Kaylor, who is associate director of Churchnet, a statewide network of Baptist churches in Missouri, said that as a Baptist minister and a father, he thinks parents, not schools, should be teaching children about the Bible.
"I don't think it's constitutional," Kaylor told UPI. "It's singling out one religious text as extra special."
Attorney Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy for American Atheists, a Cranford, N.J.-based non-profit, said the classes are not unconstitutional in and of themselves. The problem, she said, is the way the courses are taught, which can lead to proselytizing and religious coercion.
Gill pointed out that in Reality Check: Being Nonreligious in America, a recent national survey of 34,000 nonreligious people, about 29 percent of respondents reported they had negative experiences in education because of their nonreligious identity. The report also shows a correlation between states with fewer protections for the separation of religion and government and a higher level of stigma for nonreligious people, she said.
State lawmakers who are pushing for Bible courses in public schools can use model bills and resolutions drafted by the National Legal Foundation, a non-profit in Virginia Beach, Va. This legislation packet -- which includes bills that require schools to display the motto "In God We Trust" in public schools and Religious Freedom Day proclamations, among others -- is distributed by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation as part of its Project Blitz.
In 2018, Project Blitz gave a playbook with 20 model bills covering a variety of issues to more than 750 state legislators and distributed 21 model bills to lawmakers last year, according to advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Not all of the legislation introduced around the nation is based on these bills. The initiative is now called Freedom for All.
In response to Project Blitz, organizations including American Atheists and Americans United, formed a coalition called BlitzWatch to monitor and defeat "attempts by Christian nationalists to implement their distorted view of religious freedom."
Bible as literature
The National Legal Foundation counters on its website that there is no sinister conspiracy afoot to "favor certain forms of socially and theologically conservative Christianity," as claimed by its opponents.
"Rather, there is a desire by groups like the NLF to contribute to cultural literacy," the posting says.
Steven Fitschen, a lawyer and president of the National Legal Foundation, said the Bible has influenced music, art and literature, especially in the West and in the United States, and that he believes the bills are constitutional.
"The Supreme Court has already ruled you can teach about the Bible in public school," he said.
The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation could not be reached for comment. A statement on the Chesapeake, Va.-based foundation's website says schools can teach about the history of religion and the Bible as literature.
"Schools are to be neutral with respect to religion," the statement says. "However, they may play an active role with respect to teaching civic values and virtue and the moral code that holds us together as a community."
President Donald Trump, without specifying any particular bill or organization, gave a boost last year to those who support teaching about the Bible in schools.
"Numerous states introducing Bible literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!," the president tweeted on Jan. 28, 2019.
Bills to allow or require classes on the Bible in public schools have had mixed results. Among the states that passed or expanded earlier statutes in the past few years are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky. Lawmakers in Iowa, Mississippi and North Dakota were unsuccessful.