Bills Focusing on Bible Elective Classes in Public Schools Introduced in Two States

Lawmakers say legislation supported by constituents

• February 6, 2015 11:30 am


Bills introduced in Oklahoma and West Virginia focusing on Bible courses in public schools continue to face mounting opposition, but lawmakers have indicated the legislation is important and supported by constituents.

House Bill 2499 introduced in the West Virginia Legislature calls for "making available, as an elective course of instruction, the history of the old and new testaments of the Bible" by the completion of 12th grade.

"I do expect pushback from certain groups. But it is being offered as an elective—they cannot say I am forcing religion on any child," Delegate Ralph Rodighiero, (D.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said in a phone interview.

"We’re from the Bible Belt," Rodighiero said. "The history of the Bible is fact—it’s factual history. Why not have that as an elective, something as popular as the Bible?" he said. "A child should have a choice about what they want to learn about in their history class."

"Do I think it will pass? I have hopes that it will," Rodighiero said, and noted he has had "nothing but support" from his constituents. He added approximately 95 to 99 percent support the bill.

"I am pushing for getting it to the agenda," the lawmaker said. Rodighiero also said if it does not make the agenda in this legislative session, he will "try it back again a year from now."

"I believe that too many parents are failing in providing for their children's spiritual development. An accompanying problem is unacceptable ignorance of the Bible and other sacred texts," Delegate Doug Reynolds, (D.), a sponsor of HB 2499, said in an email.

When asked if he believes the bill will pass and garner support, Reynolds said, "I hope my colleagues will agree and that local school boards will agree."

The bill has now been referred to the Committee on Education. If it passes out of that committee, it will move to the Judiciary.

The West Virginia American Federation of Teachers, which did not respond to a request for comment, tweeted, "@wvschools: @wvhouse just can't quit. Here's a bill that would require schools to offer courses in Bible history."

While pushback is expected in West Virginia, Oklahoma’s bill focusing on liability and Bible elective courses has been under fire since it was introduced.

Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Kyle Loveless, (R.), is meant to protect school districts and employees that offer and teach Bible elective courses from lawsuits. Loveless did not respond to a request for comment, but told Fox News the bill would give school districts more flexibility.

"A school district and its employees and agents shall incur no liability as a result of providing an elective course in the objective study of religion or the Bible," the bill states.

This week several groups took to the steps of the Capitol Building in Oklahoma City to protest that bill and several others.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma (CAIR-OK) is one of the groups focused on SB 48.

CAIR-OK has urged Loveless to drop the bill, and a statement on their website says, "Based on American legal history and jurisprudence, a public school course that purports to teach the Bible as a religious text clearly violates the First Amendment's prohibition on promoting an "establishment of religion."

"Its intent is to promote a particular vision of the Bible as a true interpretation," CAIR-OK said. "It lacks a secular purpose and it entangles the government in a religious discussion that is inappropriate and impermissible. The state may not endorse one religion over all others and promote its views in public school classes, regardless of whether attendance is compelled or not."

One Oklahoma school district reversed its decision last year to offer Bible elective classes after threat of a lawsuit from the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation. Other schools in Florida and in Maryland have also dropped elective courses and Bible distribution due to pressure.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

The group is currently fighting a school board in Georgia over a proposal the board heard to hand out Bibles to students. FFRF indicated it would request other literature from groups such as the Satanic Temple, which includes Satanic coloring books, be distributed to children if the Bible is distributed.

Other schools, such as Benton, Ark., schools, are also considering Bible electives, according to local media reports. School districts in several states, including Texas, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, have offered such Bible classes in public schools for years.

Other groups continue to fight such courses, arguing they are unconstitutional. The Houston chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State will hold a seminar in Texas next week called "Bible in Texas Schools? Why Not?". One speaker is Ellery Schempp, whose family was the plaintiffs in the 1963 landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that requiring public school students to read and say prayer in schools was unconstitutional.