A Huntington Beach attorney who credits the Bible with helping him become an honor student is pushing for a state ballot measure to put the Scriptures in the hands of public school students as a literary text.
Matt McLaughlin received approval last week from the secretary of state's office to begin gathering signatures for the King James Bible as Textbook initiative, which would amend the Constitution to allow teachers to use the Bible in literature classes.
"Even if you don't believe its teachings, you'll agree that it includes rich usage of the English language," he said.
"That's what makes it good literature."
But critics worry that separating the literary and doctrinal aspects will prove problematic.
Federal courts permit the discussion of religious texts in public classrooms, as long as it is not used to promote religion. McLaughlin's proposal differs in that it would require school districts to make Bibles available to participating students in grades one through 12 as part of a literature curriculum.
Under the proposal, classroom Bible reading would still be voluntary, and students could substitute another text, said McLaughlin.
Officials estimated that buying Bibles for students statewide would cost up to $200 million.
In order to qualify the measure for the November ballot, McLaughlin and his supporters must obtain 598,105 valid signatures by May 24, according to the secretary of state's office. The number represents 8% of the votes cast in the 2002 gubernatorial election.
McLaughlin may need to gather 1 million signatures to make sure enough signers are registered voters -- a daunting task since as of Friday he had only six friends passing out petitions.
He was able to launch the drive after state officials, among other requirements, approved the text of the proposed law and determined the financial impact.
His campaign, McLaughlin said, is not backed by any church or political organization.
"It's a real grass-roots effort. Our website is up, and we've received several e-mails in support and some in opposition," said McLaughlin, 34.
"One person offered to contribute $10. It's the only money we've been offered, but it's a start."
McLaughlin said he has read the Bible almost every day since the first grade and considers it both inspirational and great literature.
"It enriched my learning," he said. "I grew up reading the Bible with my parents and sister. The cultural and literacy lessons we learned from it had an impact on us."
He said reading the often complex and provocative passages sharpened his cognitive skills. After becoming a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist at Costa Mesa High School in 1988, McLaughlin said, he earned a degree in economics at UC Irvine and law degree at George Mason University in Virginia.
Alex Wohl, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said McLaughlin's proposal is legal under federal law.
The federation and other groups, including non-Christian religious organizations, are listed on McLaughlin's website as supporters of the concept of using the Bible in literature classes. Each group endorsed "The Bible and Public Schools First Amendment Guide," which governs how the book can be used as an educational tool in history and literature courses.
McLaughlin's website includes a disclaimer that the listed groups have not endorsed the measure, and Wohl stressed that "we are in no way supporting his initiative."
"The U.S. Department of Education says that teaching the Bible in public schools as doctrine is unconstitutional.
But it's all right to use biblical stories or stories from the Koran or Torah to learn how they fit in the concept of world literature," said Wohl, who previously worked for the Education Department.
"My concern with this initiative is whether he's using it for an incorrect motive, like pushing Christianity."
Joyce Greenspan, director of the Orange County chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said the initiative also makes her nervous. She said the ADL, which fights anti-Semitism, also endorsed the First Amendment guide.
"He's taken the guide and used it to say that it's OK to use the Bible as a textbook. It should only be used as a source," said Greenspan.
"This is something we're not in favor of. He's among a large number of people who believe that the only way to teach values to a child is by teaching Christian values."
Although he wants the King James Version of the Bible used in literature classes, McLaughlin insists that "this initiative is not Christian per se."
"Participation is strictly voluntary. One can opt out of it. I believe that students who opt out should be accommodated. It's like sex-education classes, where parents have the option of opting out their kids if they're uncomfortable with what they're learning," he said.
If the measure does not qualify for the ballot or is rejected by voters, McLaughlin said, he will still have accomplished something.
"We will raise awareness that the Bible as literature is constitutionally permitted in the classroom," he said.