There are eleven states that have “Bible literacy laws” that allow the Bible to be taught as literature in their public schools, with Kentucky being one of the most recent. Should a bill, HF 2031, introduced in the Iowa House on Wednesday pass into law Iowa would join that number.
The legislation directs the Iowa Department of Education to adopt rules establishing an elective social studies course for high school students that would teach the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, or both “(t)o provide students with knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including but not limited to literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”
The intent of the course is to familiarize students with the content, history, literary style and structure of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, as well as, their influence on law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values, and culture.
The legislation states that course would be subject to federal and state guidelines religious neutrality and that the diverse religious views, traditions, and perspectives of students enrolled would be recognized and accommodated.
The bill states any course offered as a result of this legislation “shall not endorse, favor, promote, or disfavor, or be hostile toward, any particular religion, faith, or nonreligious perspective.”
In order for a school to offer such a course, the school improvement advisory committee of a particular high school would make a recommendation to the school district’s elected school board who would need to approve it by a majority vote.
While the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp required religious neutrality by public schools and forbids them from organizing and leading school prayer and Bible devotional reading, it did not require religion to be ignored in public schools.
Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote in his opinion in Schempp.
It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization … Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.
HF 2031’s sponsor is State Representative Dean Fisher (R-Montour). State Representatives Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City), Larry Sheets (R-Moulton), Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville), Ralph Watts (R-Adel), Tedd Gassman (R-Scarville), Steven Holt (R-Denison), Terry Baxter (R-Garner), Shannon Lundgren (R-Peosta), Kristi Hager (R-Waukon), Greg Heartsill (R-Chariton), and David Kerr (R-Morning Sun) joined him as co-sponsors.
Currently, The FAMiLY Leader has the only lobbyists registered in support of the bill. The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund has registered against the bill.
The legislation is before the House Education Committee and has not been assigned a subcommittee at the time of this writing.
Why this is important:
Introducing the Bible as literature should not be deemed controversial. In order to truly grasp Western civilization one needs a basic understanding of the literary content and influence of the Bible if not its theological significance. It can be taught in a way that respects all students. My wife took Bible as literature as a student at Valparaiso High School in Valparaiso, IN along with students of different denominations, faiths, and even with some atheists.
History courses that ignore the Judeo-Christian influence in the development of Western civilization do their students no favors.
ACLU and others who are concerned about the Bible being taught in a devotional manner should recognize that many Christian parents share that concern. I’d rather see theological instruction left to the home and church, I certainly would not want to entrust a public school teacher to that role because, frankly, who knows what heresies they could impart?
So frankly, if a school can’t remain neutral, then I don’t want them teaching the course.
Something to remember is that this course would be an elective. So no student will be compelled to take it and they would have parental/guardian permission. Also, the state is not compelling local school districts to offer it. The legislation just states that they can.
How many school districts will offer this class if this bill becomes law? I suspect very few.
Update: I updated the number of states from “at least seven” to eleven states who have a similar law on the books after receiving some information from the bill’s sponsor. “There are over 600 high schools in 43 states teaching Bible Literacy courses. 11 states by statute, the other 32 are just doing it anyway,” State Representative Fisher wrote to me on Facebook. He referenced the Bible Literacy Project’s website.