An Arizona legislator is sponsoring a bill that asks the state Board of Education to design a course called “The Bible and its Influence on Western Culture,” reports the Associated Press (AP) in the Republic. The course would be an elective at high schools that choose to offer it. At least five other states have passed similar legislation. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Proud, says students would benefit from the course because biblical references are everywhere. Opponents argue the proposal is unnecessary and divisive and could be unconstitutional because it “sets aside Christianity as a preferred religion.”
The bill stipulates that the course maintain “religious neutrality,” and requires the state Attorney General to review the curriculum to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the U.S. Constitution. Proud, who is on the House Education Committee, said she wants students to learn about the Bible’s influence on art and literature, noting that there are biblical references in everything from Michelangelo’s paintings and Shakespeare’s plays to modern movies and television.
In 2006, Georgia passed a law supporting voluntary Bible courses that is similar to the Arizona proposal. Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Oklahoma have also passed similar laws. Hundreds of public schools in other states offer elective Bible classes to students even though their state has not passed a law addressing the issue. Arizona doesn’t need to adopt such a law because there’s nothing stopping districts from offering it now, said state Sen. Rich Crandall, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. However, Crandall said he doesn’t have a problem with the bill, and said Proud is looking to reassure school districts.
As long as the course is objective, it’s constitutional, said David Cortman, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group that supports the Bible classes. “I believe it’s an extremely important type of course to provide just because our culture is so saturated with biblical reference and biblical allusions,” Cortman said.
Critics say the course could face legal challenges by bringing religious instruction into public schools. “It tends to set aside Christianity as a preferred religion. We think that’s unconstitutional,” said Doug Kilgore with the Arizona Education Association. “We don’t believe in passing legislation that’s going to be struck down.”
Victoria Lopez, a program director with the Arizona office of the American Civil Liberties Union contends it’s difficult for a school to teach such a course without imposing a particular religious view. “It’s very easy for teachers to cross the line and violate students’ religious rights,” she said. “There’s a lot of room here for those violations to take place.” Though the course would be an elective, Lopez said it’s a problem that public resources and agencies would be involved in some form of religious study.
The Arizona School Boards Association, a major advocacy group at the Capitol, is planning to meet with Proud to get more information about the bill, said spokeswoman Tracy Benson. Benson said the association did not want to comment on the proposal at this time.
Source: The Republic, 1/22/12, By Michelle Price (AP)
[Editor's Note: The constitutional concern here is an Establishment Clause violation. The First Amendment prohibits government from making any law [or policy] “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also protects “the free exercise thereof.” In April 2011, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a federal district court in South Carolina in Moss v. Spartanburg Ctny Sch. Dist. holding that a school district’s award of academic credit for off-campus religious instruction does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The school district’s release time policy was a passive measure aimed at satisfying the constitutionally permissible purpose of accommodating students’ religious beliefs.]