Bible study come to public school near you?
Veteran state Sen. Stan Bingham harbored no illusions when he introduced a bill last month that he knew would generate controversy by allowing elective Bible study in North Carolina public schools.
Bingham, R-Davidson, said he realizes his proposal raises the age-old American debate about the separation of church and state. But the seven-term legislator from Denton said he’s confident his Senate Bill 138 would allow public schoolteachers to offer a straightforward, objective Bible study course that wouldn’t veer into proselytizing or state-support of a specific faith.
“Basically, it has accomplished what I wanted it to do,” Bingham said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about it. With freedom of speech and other things, and this being an elective, why not? After I introduced it, it stimulated some interesting conversation.”
Senate Bill 138 states that “local boards of education may offer to students in grades nine through 12 elective courses for credit on the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), the New Testament, or a combination of the two subject matters.”
To be implemented, Bingham’s bill not only would have to pass the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly but withstand what almost certainly would be a court challenge on First Amendment grounds of church-state separation.
The N.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has serious concerns about the bill, said Policy Director Sarah Preston.
“These types of courses are notoriously difficult to teach in a constitutional manner, which often puts educators who want to teach them properly in a very problematic situation,” said Preston, whose state ACLU chapter is based in Raleigh. “Classes that teach the Bible have to be conducted in a way that does not promote or disparage religion, or alienate students with different beliefs. But because religious belief is such a personal issue, we believe it’s a topic best left to the student’s parents, and not government bureaucrats or school officials.”
Bingham said, though, he believes a course could be taught that would be able to bridge the gap between liberal views of Christianity or faith, such as those held by Unitarians, and conservative outlooks, such as those held by fundamentalists.
“We would have to keep in mind that this is academic and educational and leave it at that. You would leave it with the Bible — the historical aspect of it,” Bingham said.
The fate of a legal challenge against elective Bible courses would depend in large part on how the class is structured and implemented, said Scott Gaylord, associate professor of law at the Elon University School of Law.
“It isn’t supposed to be in a proselytizing, evangelical context,” Gaylord said.
The courts would be more open to approving an elective Bible course that focused on the Old and New Testaments as a “literary text or historical document,” the professor said.
The courts haven’t issued a broad, precedent-setting decision on the topic, which makes it complicated for state legislators, school boards and educators who might think about an elective Bible course, Gaylord said.
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