Florida legislature’s worrisome Bible bill
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.