Radical Religious-Right Texas State Board of Education Members
Attempt to Force Their Sectarian Religious Views on Public Schools
Using a Discredited and Unconstitutional Bible Curriculum

An Investigative Report

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
President, Texas Citizens for Science
2008 September 28

News Articles: 2007 May 25 || 2008 July 25 || 2008 September 27

Four Radical Religious-Right Republican Texas State Board of Education members have recently attempted to force their Fundamentalist religious views on Texas public school districts. In a September 15 letter (original on NCBCPS website here) on official Texas State Board of Education letterhead sent to public school district administrators and school board members, the four--Terri Leo, R-Spring, Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, and Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas--advocated the Bible curriculum of the proselytizing and discredited National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

Click letter for full-size version

This act was a shameful abuse of power by elected public officials, but it is more than that: in my opinion it is unethical and may be illegal. Here's why.

State Board of Education members have the power to write educational standards, but do not have the authority to officially specify or even recommend specific educational curricula, so members have historically refrained from doing this. Engaging in such activity is an unethical attempt to influence school districts' curriculum choices, and this is appropriately recognized by others to be an attempt to advance an ideological, religious, or political agenda or seek a financial advantage. When SBOE members leave the Board and education commissioners leave the TEA, they sometimes promote or sell educational curricula, and in such cases the activity is ethical and legal. But while the SBOE member (or Commissioner of Education) is occupying his or her position of public responsibility, citizens are justified in thinking that the public officials should be accountable to the public interest, not to personal ideological or financial interests. As is well known, selling educational curricula is a competitive, commercial business, and for elected public officials to advocate a particular curriculum--especially using official Texas State Board of Education letterhead stationery--is either a conflict of interest or an abuse of power.

Inaccurate Claims in the SBOE Members' Letter to School Districts

In their letter, the four members state that they "have no desire or intention of prescribing a set Bible curriculum for individual school districts to use." Good. But then in the subsequent sentences they go on to recommend the particularly egregious National Council Bible curriculum. This recommendation alone, despite the disclaimer, is unethical. They also make several false or inaccurate claims. Their letter states that the NCBCPS curriculum "has been implemented successfully in numerous school districts within the state of Texas for years." This claim would only be true if the criterion of success was the successful proselytization of public school students in Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity. Several reports have been written by national organizations that have analyzed and revealed the serious scholarly (historical, literary, and scientific) and Constitutional defects of the NCBCPS Bible curriculum. Three easily accessible ones by Dr. Mark Chancey, Associate Professor of the Southern Methodist University Department of Religious Studies, are readily available: The Bible and Public Schools: The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, "The Revised Curriculum of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools", and "A Textbook Example of the Christian Right: The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools." These reports and others make clear that the NCBCPS curriculum is superficial, unscholarly, and does not give students proper or even adequate instruction in Bible literature and history.

Another inaccurate claim by the four SBOE members in their letter is the following:

The particulars surrounding the implementation of Bible curriculum are unique in that they involve much more stringent constitutional parameters than do other subject areas. Therefore, it makes logical sense to select a curriculum that has already been tested and proven within the field.

The NCBCPS Bible curriculum has never been "tested and proven" within its field. In fact, it has been tested by being taken to court and losing in settlements. The National Council curriculum is illegal because its use in a public school violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The three reports cited above and others contain the evidence for this statement. Rather than instructing about Biblical literature and history in a scholarly manner, the curriculum promotes a particularly sectarian form of Protestant Christianity. A study of this curriculum makes it clear that sectarian proselytization is the curriculum's main purpose. For example, the curriculum presents as fact many mythical and scientifically-impossible Biblical stories and presents as historical individuals many Biblical personages for whom no historical evidence exists (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.). The curriculum completely ignores hundreds of years of modern Biblical scholarship and archaeology and presents the theological views of typical Protestant Fundamentalism, Inerrancy, and Literalism. Students learning from this curriculum would be indoctrinated, not educated.

In the Winter 2007 issue (59 Baylor L. Rev. 193) of the Baylor Law Review, Amanda Colleen Brown reviewed the NCBCPS's The Bible in History and Literature in a law review article titled Losing My Religion: The Controversy Over Bible Classes in Public Schools. The author subjected the curriculum to three legal tests used by the Supreme Court to determine the legality of Bible courses, and concluded that the NCBCPS curriculum is "unfit for use in public school classrooms." In 1999, the Attorney General of Georgia issued an opinion stating that the state's proposed adoption of the NCBCPS curriculum would probably not withstand a legal challenge. In a 2005 press release, the Anti-Defamation League labeled The Bible in History and Literature "unacceptable," saying that "it continues to raise serious constitutional problems" and "advocates the acceptance of one faith tradition's interpretation of the Bible over another."

Court Cases Involving the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools

Unfortunately, the unconstitutionality of the NCBCPS Bible curriculum has never been fully tested in a court that has reached a final decision. In practice, a school district using the National Council Bible curriculum is sued and the parties agree to a judgment before a verdict is reached. Someday a final verdict will be reached and I predict the National Council's curriculum will be found to be illegal. Until then, school districts would be wise to avoid the National Council curriculum.

The well-known example in Texas involved Ector County ISD's use of the NCBCPS curriculum. The American Civil Liberties Union sued ECISD, and a "Mediator-Proposed Settlement" was reached in which ECISD agreed to never again use the NCBCPS curriculum. While the settlement implies the illegality of the NCBCPS curriculum, it admittedly does not prove it. A similar settlement was reached by the Lee County ISD, Florida. The NCBCPS keeps escaping court judgment of its faulty, sectarian Bible curriculum despite lawsuits in several states. NCBCPS President Elizabeth Ridenour says the group's materials are being used in 54 Texas school districts, but the organization refuses to provide documentation of that claim (which is wildly excessive: Prof. Mark Chancey found in 2006 that "the number of Texas school districts using the NCBCPS curriculum, 11, is less than a fourth of the 52 claimed by the NCBCPS."). ECISD, by the way, is obliged to write their own unique Bible curriculum which will be reviewed by both a committee and the public to ensure its Constitutionality. I have been told that ECISD is following a literary path: its new course focuses solely on the use of the Bible in Western Literature and is being taught by English teachers, not by social studies teachers and certainly not by Protestant clergymen as is the case in several Texas high schools, so it will presumably pass Constitutional examination.

Additional Reasons Why the SBOE Letter is Unethical

A second reason why the present activity is probably illegal is because of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The Act requires that three public officials that make a quorum of an official state body must meet in a publicly-announced open meeting to conduct state business. Three of the SBOE members listed--Leo, Dunbar, and Cargill--are members of the five-person State Board's Instruction Committee and, as such, their meeting to discuss, write, and print this letter on official TEA letterhead stationery constitutes a quorum and their meeting must have been announced and open to the public. Otherwise--unless one member wrote the letter and the others signed it without discussing it--they broke the law. It is my opinion that the four SBOE members conducted an illegal meeting to coordinate the effort of discussing and writing the letter.

A third reason to not promote a specific curriculum is particularly apt in this case. Often the SBOE members have the opportunity to write course standards that may favor one particular curriculum over another. As we will see, here the four Board members worked hard to keep the Bible curriculum standards unscholarly, unsubstantive, and unspecific, and this made it possible for the one particularly unscholarly, discredited, and sectarian Bible curriculum--the NCBCPS curriculum discussed above--to qualify for use by school districts. The Texas Legislature, when it approved the Bible curriculum in House Bill 1287 in 2007, made it clear they wanted the new course to have substantial, specific, and scholarly standards, the same as any other high school course. But the majority of members of the SBOE, led mainly by the four radical members listed above, thwarted the will of the Legislature and adopted completely superficial and inadequate standards. There appears to have been a deliberate and planned effort to thwart the intended requirements of the Legislature's Bible curriculum law, and the motivation, planning, and possible rewards for this effort may all be illegal, but only a formal investigation can determine if this is truly the case.

History of the Bible Legislation

The history behind the Bible curriculum is instructive (go to HB 1287's page on the Texas Legislature Online site for full information). In an attempt to reinforce Literalist Biblical Sunday School teachings among Texas high school students by harnessing the power, legitimacy, and tax money of the public school system, Fundamentalist, Creationist, and Radical Religious-Right House member Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) introduced House Bill 1287. The bill required every school district in Texas to offer a course in Biblical history and literature no matter how many students wanted to take it and regardless of whether or not a district wanted to teach it! Writing and adoption of scholarly, substantive, and specific standards by the State Board of Education--as is the case with every other specific course in Texas--was forbidden for this new course so that it could be presented in ways to maximize its Biblical Literalist character and proselytization potential. The bill allowed unqualified and biased instructors (e.g., Protestant clergymen) to teach the Bible course. The bill prevented teachers from discussing either the "truth or falsity" of the Biblical text, something that is very unscholarly. The bill prevented teachers from discussing "religious or cultural traditions other than the Judeo-Christian tradition" (such as perhaps the derivation of the Hebrew Flood story from ancient Sumerian and Babylonian texts). The bill prohibited the adoption of a textbook so only the Bible could be used at the whim of the instructor and no scholarly textbook would be adopted by the public and regulated textbook adoption process. In short, this was as bad as a bad bill could be, and the Texas Legislature is famous for its "bad bills."

The original bill's intended Bible curriculum was blatantly biased, unscholarly, unconstitutional, and placed a costly financial and tremendous legal burden on all Texas school districts. Many citizens complained, so the bill was heavily amended by the the House Public Education Committee (HPEC) and this improved version was signed into law. Among several other improvements, the amended version of the bill made the course optional for school districts ("A school district may offer to students in grade nine or above"; emphasis added), said that if the course was offered by a district they did not have to teach it unless 15 students asked for it, said that the SBOE must develop and submit the new course's TEKS to the Texas Attorney General to ensure First Amendment compliance, and that the "commissioner shall develop and make available training materials and other teacher training resources for a school district to use in assisting teachers of elective Bible courses in developing...expertise in the appropriate Bible course curriculum." The last item would be impossible if specific, substantive, and scholarly TEKS were not written and adopted by the SBOE.

Rob Eissler, the Chairman of the HPEC, wrote in a memo given to House members before the final vote that the amended bill, soon to become law, had the following amended improvements:

He wrote in conclusion that House members "can feel secure that the proposed Bible course will be taught with the same respect and to standards given to other courses taught in our public schools." Unfortunately, Rep. Eissler could not anticipate what radical members of the SBOE were going to do with his committee's bill.

Efforts by the Bible Bill's Original Supporters to Undermine the New Bill

Chisum and the religious-right sponsors of the original bill tried mightily to oppose the efforts of the HPEC to amend their bill, but failed. Chisum and the other sponsors of the bill withdrew their support and it looked like the bill was dead, but at the last minute it passed. I believe that before the end of the legislative session Warren Chisum, other sponsors of the bill, and some religious-right members of the SBOE--certainly including the four members named above (and again presumably violating the Open Meetings Act)--conspired to salvage the amended bill by future action of the SBOE, specifically to avoid writing standards for it and trying again to make it compulsory for school districts to offer it if 15 students request it. Events later played out as if they were choreographed, making the conspiracy hypothesis highly plausible. The SBOE radicals thumbed their noses at the HPEC at every turn, particularly in refusing to write and adopt specific, scholarly, and substantive standards as has happened with every new course in Texas history. It was pretty obvious that the fix was in, and now we know why.

The new Bible curriculum statute required that the SBOE write new standards for the course. In an effort led by Terri Leo, the radical religious right faction decided to write no new substantive, scholarly, and specific standards, a practice contrary to the history of every other new course in Texas history. Instead, the radical faction wrote new extremely superficial standards adapted from Special Topics in Social Studies and Independent Study in English, both already in the TEKS and used for special topic and independent study courses that are sometimes authorized by school districts. The new Bible curriculum TEKS did not contain any specific subject requirements or standards, an unprecedented occurrence. These were the proposed standards approved by the SBOE on 2008 March 27.

The new Bible course "standards" were extremely controversial. Many citizens objected to the new Bible course TEKS. The Texas Conservative Coalition made up of "Conservative" Texas Representatives expressed their approval of the new superficial standards. The Representatives--who included Warren Chisum and other Bible curriculum bill sponsors--criticized the letter of Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), a member of the HPEC who had helped to amend the bill and wanted greater specificity in the standards. Hochberg wrote that "these proposed TEKS have such little specificity that ANY course content, no matter how trivial, would meet the requirements of the proposed rule," an observation with which I would agree. The self-styled "Conservative" Representatives responded that the new TEKS contained proper requirements to teach students the "contents, history, literary style, and influence" of the Bible. While strictly true, the fact is that the requirements are extremely generalized and almost anything could be used by teachers to meet these very superficial standards. In particular, proselytizing and unscholarly curricula such as the NCBCPS Bible curriculum would meet these extremely low standards. So could the various unscholarly and illegal Bible course curricula being used now in a few Texas high schools on an ad hoc basis.

The House Public Education Committee Letter

After this, three members of the Texas House Public Education Committee wrote a stinging letter to the TEA about the poor quality and unspecificity of the SBOE proposed standards. The three Representatives--Chair Rob Eissler, Scott Hochberg, and Diane Patrick--defended their amended statute and made the following points:

The HPEC Representatives made many compelling points in their letter. They identified themselves as the authors of the ten amendments that were adopted unanimously by the HPEC, so they claimed to speak authoritatively about the intent of the legislature. They made note of Chairman Eissler's document (described above) that was distributed to House members before the final vote; it states the purpose of the legislation is to "ensure that school districts will have curriculum standards to follow" and the new Bible course will have "the same respect and to standards given to other courses taught in our public schools." They made note that the poor standards would force each school district to write its own Bible course with its own standards, and these would be inconsistent across the state. They stated that school districts must have state standards that could withstand Constitutional inspection, and that this would be unlikely if every school district wrote its own standards in an ad hoc process. And so forth.

The bill's language required that the SBOE seek the Attorney General's opinion about the constitutionality of the new Bible course TEKS. With highly generalized requirements and non-specific standards to work with, the Deputy Attorney General wrote a letter decision on July 9 that determined that the proposed standards were "facially valid under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution" and that "a court would find the proposed TEKS facially constitutional." This decision was greeted with great joy by the radical religious right supporters of superficial, inadequate standards. However, the Deputy AG's decision also made the following observation which frequently goes unmentioned:

Because we have not reviewed curricula and courses proposed pursuant to the TEKS and [the new Bible curriculum law], we cannot conclude whether courses offered under that section will be constitutional. We can merely conclude that curricula and courses that follow [the new Bible curriculum law and the new TEKS] would be facially constitutional.

That is, any actual Bible curriculum or course that an individual school district might write or create would not necessarily be constitutional. In fact, only if they used the exact language of the SBOE-written TEKS would their course curriculum be constitutional. This paragraph should strike fear into the heart of every school district board president and superintendent in Texas. By writing insufficient, superficial, and inferior standards for the course, the SBOE was forcing every school district in Texas to create their own standards, and any litigation would be the responsibility of the school district, not the State Board. How nice of the SBOE to abrogate its responsibility and give every school district in Texas both the expense and legal liability for the new Bible course.

Formal Adoption of the Bible Curriculum by the SBOE

On July 16, Rep. Chisum wrote a letter to SBOE Chair Don McLeroy. In the letter, Rep. Chisum expressed his absolute opposition to the effort endorsed "other members" (i.e. members of the HPEC) to write new specific TEKS. Chisum then falsely claimed that it was not the intent of the law to develop new standards. He writes, "There is no language that states new TEKS must be developed." True, but irrelevant, since new standards are expected by legislative and regulatory precedent. The relevant fact is that there was no language in the bill that forbid the writing of new standards. Only if the law stated that "no new TEKS shall be developed" would this contention be true, since the opposite is the universal policy.

On Thursday, July 17, Rep. Scott Hochberg took the unusual step of personally addressing the SBOE and informing them that the legislative intent was for the SBOE to adopt new and specific standards for the new Bible course. Hochberg disputed Rep. Chisum's contention that as the original author his intent is controlling, saying that after HB 1287 was amended, the intent of its original author is no longer relevant and is replaced by the intent of the Public Education Committee. Terri Leo and Cynthia Dunbar proceeded to argued with Rep. Hochberg for several minutes, which I thought was pretty stupid since Hochberg is a senior member of the committee that controls every single power the SBOE possesses except control of the Permanent School Fund. The day before, on July 16, SBOE Chair Don McLeroy had addressed the HPEC and responded to their questions about the Bible curriculum and other educational matters, such as the new English Language Arts and Reading standards. McLeroy basically stonewalled the HPEC members and refused to respond with details, deference, or apologies. I was present for both of these events, and I believe that the radical members of the SBOE expect the HPEC to attempt to reduce their powers, but feel certain that Governor Rick Perry will veto any legislation that does so. I hope enough Texas legislators have been offended by the State Board that they will be able to pass the bill by overriding the governor's veto. In my verbal and written testimony to the HPEC on July 16, after Don McLeroy spoke, I documented all the egregious efforts of the SBOE to damage science education in Texas and argued that the Legislature should greatly circumscribe the powers of the SBOE.

Things came to a head on July 18. I presented my written testimony to each Board member about the Bible course standards that I had written the night before. I was very proud of my quick effort to come up with good arguments to adopt specific, scholarly, and substantive standards for the new course. But to no avail. After some one-sided debate and absurd arguments by Ken Mercer and the four SBOE members who later signed the letter, the superficial, inadequate, and unscholarly Bible curriculum standards were formerly adopted by a vote of 10-5. One Board member who voted for the new Bible curriculum TEKS because she has long wanted Texas schools to offer a Bible literature and history course--when I told her the school districts would become litigation magnets if they use the new standards to write their own course--told me that she had been told by the supporters that school districts would have to get the Texas AG's opinion as to the constitutionality of their Bible course, so no harm would come to them. I couldn't bear to tell her that she had been lied to by her own colleagues, but that's what radicals do.

Here are the points I presented to each SBOE member in my written testimony:

Please Vote NO on the Bible Course Curriculum Requirements

1.   By refusing to write and adopt specific, clear, scholarly, and substantive standards, you are flouting the intent of the House Public Education Committee, which is bad public policy and a rebuke to the Representatives.

2.   The Public Education Committee Representatives warned Chairman McLeroy to develop substantive standards. It would be foolish to not do so and create unnecessary ill will.

3.   If you donít write standards, you will force every school district that wants to offer this course to write its own curriculum standards, which is a great deal of work to push onto hundreds of Texas school districts. These schools probably donít have the time and money to do this, so they will simply refuse to offer the course. Your actions will cause the course to be less successful, not more.

4.   By refusing to write substantive standards, you are taking the liability for unconstitutional mistakes off the TEA and putting it onto the local school districts. They will be wary of writing their own standards for fear of not doing it properly to withstand Establishment Clause challenges and becoming litigation magnets. Schools want the protection of state-written standards that will be used throughout the state and offer more acceptance and stability.

5.   Commissioner Robert Scott is responsible for training and certifying teachers who will teach the new course. By not writing standards, you are giving him no direction about what the training should cover. The TEA staff will have to make all the decisions themselves about what the Bible course should contain, which they will have to know ahead of time to be able to train teachers.

6.   I testified that it is extremely difficult to teach a Bible course in a neutral, objective, scholarly, and secular manner, which is the legal requirement. Just stating that the course must be taught in this way doesnít guarantee that the course will be taught this way. Unless the Bible standards are properly and professionally constructed by Bible scholars who do not have a sectarian agenda, the standards will almost certainly be unconstitutional and eventually challenged in court when inevitable classroom abuses occur. This will cost school districts millions of dollars.

7.   I testified that about 30 Texas high schools currently teach a Bible course using standards that are essentially similar to those being voted on. Almost all of these courses are presenting Biblical instruction in an illegal fashion that proselytizes in favor of Protestant Christianity, as research by the SMU religion professor showed. TFN presented specific examples of this illegal material. Substantive, scholarly standards must be created to prevent this unconstitutional abuse of the law.

Texas Attorney General's Opinion

There was another matter to consider. Because of the craven attempts of the bill's original sponsors, particularly Warren Chisum, to obfuscate the intention of the amended law, Commissioner Robert Scott was obligated on 2008 February 19 to request an opinion of the Texas Attorney General for an opinion about specific aspects of the new law. Chisum kept saying publicly and falsely to the press that the new law required school districts to offer the new course and they had to teach it when at least 15 students asked to take it. In fact, the new law explicitly allowed school districts--if they had previously decided to offer the course--to not offer the course if fewer than 15 students at a "school district campus" asked to take it. The new Bible course was explicitly made optional for any school district by the amended legislation. The subsequent Attorney General's Opinion of 2008 August 28 confirmed the correct interpretation of the new law, going against Warren Chisum's interpretation on every element.

Several subtle points are contained in the AG's opinion. For some unfathomable reason, the new Bible curriculum was allowed to be placed in the "enrichment curriculum" by the HPEC of which the Texas Education Code states, "Each school district that offers kindergarten through grade 12 shall offer, as a required curriculum."  (The other required curriculum is the "foundation curriculum" that includes ELA, math, science, and social studies.) This would indeed seem to suggest that the Bible course would be required in every school district. But the AG made a distinction between curriculum and course, saying that while the Bible curriculum is required, it could be taught as an additional topic--with no requirements as to length, depth, or rigor!--within other existing required courses. The AG says, "A school district must, of course, offer instruction in the subject matter" described in the law for the new course, but a new course is not necessary, since "there are various other ways in which the subject matter of [the Bible curriculum] might be offered, such as including it in another course in the foundation or enrichment curriculum." This is often done, for example, by including the enrichment curriculum requirement for "economics" in the eighth grade social studies course. So, presumably, the law would be satisfied if an English course used one class period to discuss Biblical allusions and quotes in Shakespeare.

Next, the AG correctly concluded that the word "may" in the primary subsection (a) of the law means that school districts are not required to offer the new course if they don't want to. The AG correctly concluded that the phrase "a course required by this section" in subsection (h) refers to the details of an inferior grant of authority. The legislative history and intent of amendments also clearly makes the course optional for any school district. Finally, the question of 15 students who "register to enroll in a course required by this section" in the Bible course is correctly decided to refer only to students who register for a course optionally offered by both the school district and the high school campus. No high school campus is under the obligation to provide this course to any number of students.

Consequences of the Opinion

This AG's Opinion was a major blow to Warren Chisum and the pro-Bible course zealots in the Legislature and on the SBOE, since now every Texas school district with common sense and regard for their budget will avoid introducing the new Bible course. First, districts don't have to do it if they don't want to. Second, if they do want to do it, districts will have to go to the considerable expense of developing the standards and curriculum themselves or they can adopt and pay for one of the two commercially-available curricula. The first is the NCBCPS Bible curriculum that has serious scholarly and constitutional problems as described above. The second, the Bible Literacy Project, has scholarly problems and only possible constitutional ones that can be found described here, here, here, and here. Third, if the districts don't do it right, they might be sued, because people and organizations are growing increasingly tired of public officials using public tax money to promote religion in the public schools. Fourth, if the districts adopt one of the commercial curricula, the Legislature is probably going to rewrite the law in 2009 to make specific, scholarly, and substantive standards mandatory, so they will have to do everything all over again. In every case, a new high school Bible course is a can of worms and a perpetual headache. Perhaps Texas school districts can buy Ector County ISD's new Bible curriculum once it has been vetted and save some time and money.

Jonathan Saenz of Liberty Legal and Bob Unruh of WorldNet Daily, both religious-right organizations, predictably gave their tremendous loss from the Attorney General a different spin. Saenz said that, "This is a huge victory for the people of Texas and, I think, for people across the country for academic freedom." He's right, but for the opposite reason he thinks. The article states, "Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the author of the plan, said if 15 or more students express interest in the course, districts must provide it." If Chisum really said that after reading the decision, he must be delusional. Later, Saenz admits that "the requirement allows such education to be either in a regular class or a separate class" and "The Legislature did not mandate that this curriculum instruction be provided in independent courses." Both of these statements are true. What Saenz omits, however, is that the amount of instruction can be as much or as little as a school district wants, since the adopted standards are superficial and non-specific and can be covered quickly in as little as one class period. And, of course, districts don't have to provide such instruction in a regular English or history course unless at least 15 students ask. What will the other 15 students in the class want to study?

Reasons Why the Bible Course and Curriculum is Important for Science Education in Texas

Texas Citizens for Science is sometimes criticized by science opponents for involving itself in "non-scientific" issues such as the Bible curriculum and courses. In fact, this topic is both pertinent and important to TCS's goals of improving the accuracy and reliability of science instruction in Texas public schools. First, both the NCBCPS curriculum and most Bible courses in Texas high schools promote Creationism and other pseudosciences and allow them to be taught in public school classrooms, thus giving fake science the undeserved legitimacy of secular public education. I have heard reports of Creationism being taught and evolution denigrated in these Bible courses in classrooms right next door to biology laboratories in the same public schools. Although probably uncommon, this is both unconscionable and a travesty.

Second, the NCBCPS curriculum and most Texas Bible courses present blatantly mythical and scientifically-impossible events as factual, thus mitigating the laudatory effects of good science education in Texas. Such events include the creation of the universe, Earth, and organisms in six days, Adam and Eve as the first two humans, Noah's Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, raising the dead, life after death, and other miracles. To be scholarly and secular--requirements for a public school Bible course--students must be informed that according to modern scholars, all these stories are mythical or miraculous and--while they may have literary value--they have no basis in reason, evidence, or history. But students are never told this, because that would impugn the very sectarian religious beliefs that the promoters of such courses want to teach.

The third reason why the Bible curriculum is an important and relevant topic for TCS is because its existence in public schools depends on its Establishment Clause legality. This is the same law that protects students in the secular public schools from indoctrination in Creationism, Intelligent Design Creationism, and exposure to bogus "weaknesses" of evolution promoted by anti-evolutionists. TCS is very interested in how Constitutional law is applied in the Texas public education system, since the details vitally impact our primary goals of protecting the accuracy and reliability of science instruction by keeping out religious pseudoscience and efforts to damage specific science topics.

Reasons to Take a Bible Course or Other Course

A student should use his or her very limited and valuable high school classroom time to study subjects that will really educate them for success in the 21st century: English, social studies, math, science, and arts. There are many elective courses available in these disciplines that are far more valuable for a student about to enter college or a career than learning about the literature and history of the Bible. Bible study should be left to the home, churches, and Sunday schools. A second possibility which I would recommend, if students want to take an elective course in religion, would be for state education officials to offer an elective course in Comparative Religion, since different and conflicting religions are a source of many of the world's problems. For example, the suicide terrorists responsible for 9/11 were fanatical Muslim Fundamentalists. The dangers of religious Fundamentalism would be a prime topic of study in a good Comparative Religion course, and students might learn something about their neighbors.

A Bible-only course focusing on its literature and history would be a distant third-choice in my opinion. Bible courses in the public school system have only one real reason to exist: to proselytize or reinforce the religious beliefs of students in a legitimate, secular setting that provides powerful support for student learning. Parents and students trust the public school system, so when the Bible is taught there, it gains more credibility and legitimacy than it may deserve. The idea that a Bible course helps students learn English literature is bogus: the historical use of Biblical quotations and allusions in Western English literature could be easily covered in high school English classes--no formal Bible course is necessary. As for Biblical history, modern archaeology has both confirmed and disproven much of the history contained in the Bible, and the typical high school Bible course ignores modern scientific findings about the Bible's incorrect history, allowing students to just believe what they want without giving them educational guidance or correction. The proper place to learn about Biblical history is in an archaeology class that is taught in an accurate scientific and scholarly manner. For these reasons, the typical high school Bible course is more about indoctrination than education.

Legality of a Bible Literature and History Course

A Bible literature and history course--when "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education" as the Supreme Court has ruled--is certainly legal. The problem is that it is almost never presented "objectively" in the secular public schools. As discussed above, numerous historical and scientific errors, conflicts, and impossibilities are never discussed with students as an objective education would require. Instead, the Bible's many intellectual and factual problems are usually left unmentioned. Indeed, even the adopted version of the Texas Bible curriculum law states that, "A course under this section shall not endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective." The original version of Chisum's bill was even worse: instruction must be such that it does "not attempt to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the Judeo-Christian biblical materials." It would be frankly impossible to teach any course about the literature and history of anything with this restriction, since just stating something that a student finds objectionable would be considered attempted indoctrination.

A scholarly, legitimate, and accurate Bible literature and history course must honestly tell students that much of the history in the Bible is wrong or impossible, and that will presumably "show hostility" toward some sects ("perspectives") of Protestant Christianity that believe in Biblical Inerrancy or Literalism. Other branches of Christianity have no problem with modern Biblical scholarship and archaeology, so if the Literalist and Inerrantist Christian students could be blocked from taking an objective and scholarly course--a socially, politically, and ethically impossible task--it could be taught with no problems. As I have stated before, it is extremely difficult--perhaps impossibly so--to teach about the Bible in a scholarly, responsible, and legal manner in public schools without offending someone in the class. The National Council Bible curriculum doesn't even try to be scholarly, responsible, and legal. For these reasons, the concept of a Bible literature and history course is bound to be objectionable and controversial.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2008 October 5