Bible in school

Students at Weaver High School work on an essay in their literature class on the Bible in early 2018. (Kirsten Fiscus/The Anniston Star)

A state law allowing schools to teach the Bible as literature passed in May, but a group set against the mingling of church and state said the classes could lead to lawsuits. 

Gov. Kay Ivey signed Act 508 into law on May 30, allowing Alabama schools to teach the Bible from an academic perspective, rather than as a source of spiritual guidance, as an elective course for grades six through 12. The classes already existed in the state — Weaver High offered it as recently as last year, and Anniston’s city school system was petitioned in 2010 to allow similar courses — but the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, further clarified the state’s willingness to allow the course. 

But representatives of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization based in Madison, Wis., said that while the classes may be legal, the standards by which they’re taught must be strictly followed to avoid violating federal law. The organization sent letters saying as much to each school district in the state last week, including the Calhoun County Board of Education. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that school-led Bible study was unconstitutional, though the court added that it could be taught objectively as part of a secular program. 

The problem, according to Ryan Jayne, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is maintaining objectivity. 

“At a college level you get professors who understand how to present the Bible in a secular way, but it’s pretty much unheard of to find a high school teacher with that level of training,” Jayne said. “Most end up teaching a class the way they would teach Sunday school classes.” 

Jayne said members of the foundation who live in Alabama had drawn the organization’s attention to the bill, after news of its passage last month. 

Alabama is one of several states to introduce legislation this year to allow the courses, something Jayne said the foundation attributes to the efforts of the Project Blitz, a coalition comprised of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation and Wallbuilders ProFamily Legislators Conference, seeks to “properly frame the narrative and the language of religious liberty issues.” 

Attempts to reach the Congressional Prayer Caucus were unsuccessful Tuesday. 

Project Blitz offers handbooks that encourage the creation of public policy that may close the gap between church and state, offering counterarguments for attacks on desired legislation and even providing a legislator-only handbook, with model legislation that has fill-in-the-blank sections to tailor bills to specific areas. 

Much of Act 508 copies or paraphrases model legislation laid out in the coalition’s “Religious Freedom Measures” handbook, a 148-page guide to creating public policy. One passage lifted from the handbook almost verbatim explains how Bible-as-literature courses might be useful, such as teaching “narratives that are useful for understanding history and contemporary society and culture, including art, music, social mores and public policy.” 

The Bible’s prominence in Western culture is usually one of the strongest arguments for its inclusion in public education, Jayne said. 

“They quite rightly say you can’t have a thorough understanding of Western history without knowing something about the Bible, and that’s certainly correct,” Jayne said. “The problem again is that it is a very tricky thing to teach the history or the literature of the Bible without any religious advocacy.” 

Alabama’s law leaves out some of the suggested language, like provisions for the study of other religious books, like the Quran or other non-Judeo Christian religious texts, insisting on only the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

The final bill also adds language allowing teachers to refuse to teach the class without fear of reprisal in the form of non-renewed contracts or termination. 

Jayne said that if parents or students were to complain that a course was being used as a platform for non-secular teaching, a school district could be taken to court for violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause — the one that forbids the government from establishing any law that respects an establishment of religion. 

He said that school systems could face an injunction that would stop the course from being taught and potentially rack up thousands of dollars in legal fees, should the system decide to fight the case. 

“From what we’ve seen in practice, similar classes have been tried and they invariably end up being found unconstitutional,” Jayne said. 

However, Alabama’s law offers protections for schools taken to court over the class. If a local board of education is sued over a Bible-as-literature class, Act 508 says, the state Attorney General will defend that board or their agents for free. If the board is ordered to pay fines, court costs or attorney fees, the state Legislature "shall appropriate funds for that purpose separate and apart from any other budget allocation."

The foundation sent letters to each state that was considering or had passed legislation allowing the Bible classes, a project Jayne worked on, he said. The letters ask that if the course is taught, that school leadership create curriculums that keep teachers teaching, but not preaching. 

Donald Turner, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools, confirmed Monday that he had received a letter from the foundation, though he didn’t believe there would be any issues for the school system. 

“We’re not inventing the wheel,” Turner said. “We’re following the directives as set out by the state Department of Education.” 

Turner, who started his job in April, said he didn’t know those directives at that time. He also said he was unsure which schools offer the course, because each school can decide independently whether to include the class. 

Attempts to contact the Alabama Department of Education for information about state standards were unsuccessful Monday. 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.