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A peek between the pages of the Bible bill

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A peek between the pages of the Bible bill

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You’d think lawmakers and the governor are tiring of controversy as they approach the end of this year’s legislative session. But in what is widely seen as a contentious move in secular society, Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law House Bill 2563, a measure allowing schools to offer a high school course on the Bible’s influence on Western culture.

So much for going quietly into that good night.

The donnybrook centers on the appropriateness of Bible literature as a foundational, albeit elective, course of study. Advocates say the Bible should be part of the curriculum because it is closely identified with Western history, government and mores, especially in America. Critics worry that students will be forced-fed the values of one denomination and question the constitutionality of the course since other religious works (e.g., the Koran, Book of Mormon) are excluded. They also argue that teachers are academically ill-equipped to teach Bible-related topics effectively.

In a nutshell, the legislation would:

  • Require the State Board of Education to include concepts of the history and literature of the Old and New Testament in History or English Arts.
  • Allow school districts and charter schools to offer a high school elective course pertaining to how the Bible has influenced Western culture.
  • Require that courses be designed to familiarize students with the “contents of, history recorded by and literary style and structure of the Old and New Testament” and their influence on “laws, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture.”
  • Allow a student to use a different translation of the Old or New Testament than the one chosen by the school as the basic textbook.
  • Not require students to receive instruction on the historical study of biblical text if a student chooses not to enroll in the elective course.

In an attempt to stay inside the bounds of constitutional or legal mandates and ensure course objectivity, HB 2563 would also:

  • Require school boards to exclude all books and materials of a sectarian, partisan or denominational character from schools and libraries. (Teachers found in violation are subject to certificate revocation.)
  • Prohibit personnel from being assigned to teach courses based on “a religious or nonreligious test, a profession of faith, lack of faith or prior or current religious affiliation or lack thereof.”
  • Grant immunity from civil and disciplinary action (certificate revocation) to a teacher who instructs courses in its appropriate historical context and in good faith.
  • Stipulate that a legal review must be conducted before a school offers courses to ensure that it complies with the First Amendment.
  • Require courses to follow all federal and state guidelines in maintaining religious and nonreligious neutrality and accommodating the diverse religious views, traditions, and perspectives of students.

Arizona is the sixth state to allow schools to offer Bible courses. It remains to be seen if the resulting ruckus has legs. Georgia, the first state to enact such a law, has seen waning interest in Bible education. Just 21 schools in 16 Georgia districts – out of 180 school districts statewide – offered the voluntary classes last school year, according to the Huffington Post. That’s down from 48 districts four years ago.

Besides the general lack of academic interest, Georgia educators say students have “little time in their class schedules for elective courses because they have to repeat the state's new, tougher math courses or need an Advanced Placement class to help with college admissions.” Moreover, cash-strapped schools say it’s tough to justify funding for classes that attract few students.

A “teachable moment” might be in the offing if HB 2563 ends up being something the politicians wanted more badly than Arizona students.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Ed Perkins is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, an ASU think tank.

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bible, christians, jan brewer, legislature

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