Written by Don Byrd

Legislation requiring all school districts to create elective courses in Bible literacy passed out of a Iowa House Education Subcommittee on Tuesday. The measure now moves to the full committee, where it will ilkely face vocal opposition and controversial amendments, including one that would also require elective courses being made available that study the sacred texts of other religions.

The Globe Gazette reports:

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired teacher, called the bill unneeded because, according to the Department of Education, 111 Iowa school districts — about one third of all districts — offer some sort of elective course addressing religion.

In addition, Mascher said the bill would set a costly precedent for the department to establish standards for all electives offered by Iowa schools.

“Going down that rabbit hole of having the department establish standards for all electives is ridiculous and cost-prohibitive,” she said. The department doesn’t set standards for electives.

Mascher said she would bring amendments to the Education Committee to establish similar courses to teach the Koran and Torah as well as establish standards for other electives.

A similar bill is also moving forward in the West Virginia legislature. A recently enacted law in Kentucky requiring  such an elective to be offered came under increased scrutiny earlier this month after an ACLU review alleged numerous examples of religion being improperly promoted through Bible literacy courses across the state.

Religious literacy is increasingly important. It is easy to see how a comparative religion class can be invaluable to a student’s education. As a way to understand the news of the world, to gain empathy and understanding for our neighbors, knowledge of various religious traditions and perspectives serves well the goals of public education. But to focus on just one sacred text or religious perspective in a stand-along course (as opposed to a segment in a Literature or Social Studies course) heightens the constitutional risks for students and for school districts.

Religious indoctrination and promotion is appropriately the province of our homes and houses of worship, not our public schools. That is not to say the Iowa proposal could not yield a constitutional curriculum. Surely it could. But that doesn’t make it a good idea. Where the religious liberty rights of children and parents are involved, the stakes are too high.