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Texas may require schools to carry elective on Bible

Legislation calls for an `objective and nondevotional' course.

April 15, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — The Lone Star State could become the first in the nation to require all public high schools to offer an elective course on the Bible.

Hearings continued in the Legislature last week on a bill that calls for school districts in Texas to offer a class on "the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments eras" if at least 15 students sign up.

The bill was written by state Rep. Warren Chisum, a West Texas Republican who teaches Sunday school at a Baptist church. He said the course would not treat the Bible as a "worship document" but would promote religious and cultural literacy by "educating our students academically and not devotionally."

The bill, which says the class is to be taught in "an objective and nondevotional manner," does not provide funding or training for school districts and teachers.

This presents a problem because most high school teachers aren't qualified to teach the Bible as a historical or literary text, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as a mainstream watchdog "to counter the religious right."

"The fear is that teachers with limited training and no guidance will be called upon to teach a course for which their experience draws largely from Sunday school," Miller said. "It would be difficult for them to keep their own religious perspective out of the classroom. You can almost hear the lawyers lining up."

A study conducted for her group by Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, found that of Texas' 25 public school districts with a Bible course, 22 districts' offerings had a Christian slant.

"When teachers don't have solid training in biblical studies and 1st Amendment issues, then they fall back on what they know from prior knowledge," Chancey told state legislators last week. "Courses end up being sectarian, often despite their best intentions."

He said one teacher showed students a PowerPoint presentation titled "God's Road Map for Your Life." Included was a slide called "Jesus Christ Is the One and Only Way." Another teacher taught students that NASA had found a missing day and time that corresponded to a biblical story of the sun standing still. One school showed "VeggieTales" videos, which feature computer-animated Christian vegetables that talk.

"We have hard data on what's happening in Texas Bible classrooms, and it's troubling," Chancey said.

Chisum's legislation says the Bible would be the primary textbook for the class. It allows but doesn't require the classes to include secular books or those from other religions.

Critics say that by using the Bible as the main text -- instead of a book about the Bible's influence on history and literature -- the bill favors a curriculum that's more devotional than scholarly. Chisum dismisses that contention.

"It just makes sense to use the Bible if that's the course that you're talking about," he said. "It's the most available book in the world."

Julie Drenner of Texans for Family Values, who testified Thursday in favor of the bill, said the legislation left the course's curriculum up to teachers and school districts.

"The best way for policing any education requirement is at our local school level, and any complaints are best heard by people at the local school level because they're the ones elected and directly accountable to the people in their district," Drenner said.

Chisum is chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee, the second most powerful position in the chamber. The bill is coauthored by 52 of his 149 colleagues.

In February, Chisum circulated an anti-evolution-education memo from a Georgia legislator that contained links to a website that alleged international Jewish conspiracies. Chisum later apologized, saying he had not read the memo carefully before distributing it to House members.

lianne.hart@latimes.com

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