Georgia’s Legislature on Monday passed a bill to fund elective Bible courses in public high schools, sparking concern among 1st Amendment advocates and generating praise from lawmakers worried that children are losing their grasp on one of Western civilization’s most influential texts.
The bill -- which still must be signed into law by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue -- would fund separate high school courses on the Old and New Testaments in the context of history and literature.
The bill states that the classes should be taught “in an objective and nondevotional manner, with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity” of the works.
The measure passed late Monday, and lawmakers who supported it were unavailable to comment. But Republican state Sen. Tommie Williams, the bill’s sponsor, has said in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Bible is crucial to understanding the foundations of American government.
Federal courts have ruled that public school Bible courses do not violate the 1st Amendment principle of church-state separation as long as they are objective and do not promote religion. A number of districts around the country already teach such classes.
But Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, said this was the first time to his knowledge that a legislature had approved such a course on a statewide basis.
Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director of the liberal People for the American Way, said the proposal’s constitutionality could only be determined once the specifics of the curriculum were laid out.
But she was troubled by the bill’s language. She pointed to a section that says students should learn “the history recorded by the Old and New Testaments.” Schaeffer noted that courts have ruled the Bible cannot be taught as history.
“It’s setting up a course that’s presented from an unconstitutional perspective,” she said. “It’s starting out by digging a hole for itself.”
People for the American Way has successfully sued school districts in Florida and Mississippi for overstepping constitutional guidelines for Bible classes. Schaeffer said the group would prefer to see courses that focus on the range of sacred texts, not just those favored by Christians.
Democratic lawmakers first introduced a Bible literacy bill in Georgia this year. At the time, they said they were keen to show that Republicans do not have a monopoly on issues of faith. But Republicans, who hold a legislative majority in the state, killed the Democratic proposal and introduced their own.
Democrats and Republicans are sparring over competing Bible literacy bills in the Alabama statehouse. Missouri legislators are also considering such a bill.