Florida leg­is­la­ture’s wor­ri­some Bi­ble bill

The Korea Times - - OPINION - The above ed­i­to­rial ap­peared in the Sun Sen­tinel (Fort Laud­erdale, Fla.). It was dis­trib­uted by Tribune Con­tent Agency, LLC.

A leg­is­la­tor from Jack­sonville wants to make the pub­lic schools of­fer op­tional cour­ses on re­li­gion and the Bi­ble. That’s some­thing to worry about.

There are many good rea­sons to teach com­par­a­tive re­li­gion, given the wors­en­ing cli­mate of big­otry in this coun­try. In­deed, many groups that de­fend the sepa­ra­tion of church and state — in­clud­ing such faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tions as the Bap­tist Joint Com­mit­tee and the Amer­i­can Jewish Con­gress — en­cour­age such in­struc­tion.

As writ­ten, how­ever, the bill is vague and open to the ques­tion of whether it’s sim­ply an­other at­tempt at Bi­ble study, a sub­ject best taught in houses of wor­ship and fam­ily homes.

The is­sue is back in the Florida leg­is­la­ture in the form of House Bill 195, which would re­quire pub­lic schools to of­fer elec­tive classes “re­lat­ing to re­li­gion, He­brew Scrip­tures, and the Bi­ble.” Such classes are al­lowed now, but few schools seem to be do­ing it. The bill makes the of­fer­ings manda­tory, though no stu­dent would have to sign up.

Our con­cern is not so much with what the bill says, as with what it doesn’t.

The bill calls for a “sec­u­lar pro­gram of ed­u­ca­tion,” in­clud­ing, but not lim­ited, “an ob­jec­tive study of the Bi­ble.” The em­pha­sis is on the Jewish and Chris­tian scrip­tures. There’s no men­tion of Is­lam or any of the other faiths that are present in Amer­ica and far more nu­mer­ous world­wide. There’s noth­ing to en­cour­age com­par­a­tive re­li­gion as the course of study. That’s un­for­tu­nate.

An­other con­cern is the spon­sor­ship. Rep. Kim Daniels, D-Jack­sonville, is a Chris­tian evan­ge­list who has had an ac­tive and largely suc­cess­ful agenda of pro­mot­ing re­li­gion in the pub­lic schools, in­clud­ing 2018 leg­is­la­tion that man­dates dis­play of the motto “In God We Trust.” That’s preach­ing, not teach­ing. Although her bill says the cour­ses must not “en­dorse, fa­vor, or pro­mote or dis­fa­vor” a par­tic­u­lar re­li­gion “or non­re­li­gious faith,” the po­ten­tial for such mis­chief clearly ex­ists.

The fed­eral and Florida con­sti­tu­tions rightly pro­hibit the gov­ern­ment — in this con­text, the schools — from re­quir­ing re­li­gious prac­tice, such as or­ga­nized prayers or Bi­ble read­ing un­der the aus­pices of the fac­ulty. Stu­dents are free, how­ever, to en­gage in their own ob­ser­vances so long as oth­ers aren’t com­pelled.

But although the schools can’t teach re­li­gion, there’s no con­sti­tu­tional bar­rier to teach­ing about re­li­gion. In­deed, it would be a pa­thet­i­cally in­ad­e­quate cur­ricu­lum that didn’t rec­og­nize the vast in­flu­ence of re­li­gion on the arts, lit­er­a­ture and his­tory. Teach­ing, yes. Preach­ing, no.

It can also over­come the ig­no­rance re­flected in a 2017 Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll that 44 per­cent of U.S. adults be­lieve there is a “nat­u­ral con­flict be­tween Is­lam and democ­racy.” In fact, In­done­sia, the world’s most pop­u­lous Mus­lim na­tion is, ac­cord­ing to the Econ­o­mist, “the world’s third largest democ­racy.” Pew found that fully 50 per­cent of U.S. adults be­lieve Is­lam is not part of main­stream Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. In fact, there are Mus­lims through­out our armed forces and in the graves at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

Those who call for the care­ful teach­ing of com­par­a­tive re­li­gion point out that the cour­ses must be well-planned and taught only by peo­ple trained against pro­mot­ing their own faiths or den­i­grat­ing oth­ers.

That was em­pha­sized in a sig­nif­i­cant 2007 doc­u­ment, “Find­ing Com­mon Ground: A First Amend­ment Guide to Re­li­gion and the Pub­lic Schools.” A chap­ter spon­sored jointly by 17 re­li­gious, ed­u­ca­tion and free-press or­ga­ni­za­tions quoted from the lead­ing Supreme Court de­ci­sion, in 1960, against manda­tory school prayer.

Part of the prob­lem is the re­luc- tance of text­book pub­lish­ers to in­vite any con­tro­versy, even if it means bleach­ing their books of any rel­e­vance. An­other is the fear that to teach chil­dren about other faiths, or even to ac­knowl­edge them, is to un­der­mine what they’re taught at home and in their re­spec­tive churches. Some de­nom­i­na­tions are hos­tile to ec­u­meni­cal stud­ies. And of course it takes a very spe­cial per­son to teach these sub­jects fairly, without bias. But it is not an im­pos­si­ble task.

House Bill 195 needs care­ful at­ten­tion and a lot of work on the part of the leg­is­la­ture if it is to be en­acted. In its present form, it is un­ac­cept­ably vague and sus­pi­ciously tilted to a par­tic­u­lar faith. The Florida ACLU is con­cerned, rightly so.

“Ul­ti­mately, par­ents, not the gov­ern­ment, should be in charge of re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion,” said the ACLU’s po­lit­i­cal direc­tor, Kirk Bai­ley, who said it will be watch­ing “to en­sure that one faith is not pro­moted over an­other in our pub­lic schools and to pro­tect our stu­dents’ First Amend­ment rights.”

That should be the leg­is­la­ture’s con­cern as well.

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