Bible in school

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

Ninth-grader Ashanti Bean remembers the first big debate that emerged in her class on the Bible at Weaver High School.

“We don’t actually know what food they ate to get kicked out of the Garden of Eden,” Bean said.

“The apple is from that book,” chimed in another student, sitting a few rows over.

That book, teacher Stephanie Pruett reminds the class, is John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” — the source of much of what people think they know about the Bible.

Every school day, from 11 a.m. to 11:50 a.m., Pruett teaches a class on the Bible as literature to 30 high school students who chose the course as an elective. The fall semester was devoted to the Old Testament. On Friday, students had their laptops open and were writing essays that compared the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the perspective of Biblical figures mentioned in the text.

Lawmakers in Montgomery this week are considering a bill that would “enable public school teachers ... to use the Bible or other scripture to instruct students as part of a course on religious history, comparative religions, literature, the role of religion in world history, art, music, or social studies.”

The bill got the approval of a key committee in the Alabama House of Representatives last week, but education officials and civil libertarians aren’t sure there’s really a need for it.

“Teachers are scared to death to teach the Bible,” said Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, the bill’s sponsor.

“The state school board approved it years ago, but teachers are afraid they’ll get into trouble.”

According to the state school board, 453 students are taking Bible-as-literature elective courses statewide. That includes 10 students in Alexandria High, 13 at Wellborn High and 13 at White Plains.

Three Huntsville schools and two Tuscaloosa County schools teach the course. Bibb County High has 64 enrolled in Bible-related classes, more than any other school in the state.

Pruett doesn’t seem afraid to teach the course, though she does approach the subject with care. The first day of class is about setting ground rules — rules for civil discourse and a clear statement of her role.

“I’m specific about the fact that we’re looking at this from a literary standpoint,” she said.

The single class includes student in grades nine through 12. So far, it’s an elective that doesn’t count as an advanced literature course, though Pruett says it’s fertile ground for good conversations about literature. Most students come to the class with a strong knowledge of the text, she said.

“All my life I’ve learned this in church, and it’s interesting to look at it in another setting,” said Kylee Jordan, a 10th-grader. Jordan said she was surprised to discover that Jesus may not have been born on Dec. 25 — traditionally Christmas Day, though no date is mentioned in the Bible.

Eleventh-grader Stefon Kirby said he enjoyed role-playing in the course, particularly the Garden of Eden scenes. There was a lot of talk about who was at fault, he said.

Pruett said the students have compared the “two versions of Genesis” — the one in the Bible, and the passages from Milton that gave Eden the apple. (The Bible doesn’t name a specific fruit.) They’ve also read parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem that shares some common themes with the Bible.

Students made a cake to illustrate the parting of the Red Sea; someone brought candy to represent each of the ten plagues of Egypt. On the classroom wall is a poster a student made to visualize the account of creation, day by day.
The Alabama branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to Greer’s bill, though not, perhaps, for the reasons some Alabamians might think.
“There’s nothing inappropriate about teaching religious texts in an educational setting,” said Randall Marshall, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama. “The devil is in the details. It’s when the teacher presents it as religious truth that it crosses the line.”

Marshall said Greer’s bill would legalize something that’s likely already done in schools — and legal, if done the right way. He spoke to The Star before a reporter’s visit to the class in Weaver.

Even Common Core, a multi-state set of academic standards that sparked the ire of many social conservatives, have a place for the Bible. Under the standards, ninth-graders are expected to be able to “analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes” from religious texts — with the Bible the only text mentioned by name. Another passage says students should be able to explain how a writer such as Shakespeare reinterprets themes from earlier works such as the Bible or the Roman poet Ovid.

It’s not the first time Bible classes have been discussed on the House and Senate floor. Lawmakers in 2015 passed a law to allow students to leave school for Bible classes and get school credit for them. Calhoun County officials at the time said they’d be uncomfortable sending students off-campus regularly for classes, though their Bible-as-literature courses did do field trips to houses of worship of various faiths.

Greer said he expects his bill to reach the House floor in the next few weeks.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.