Written by Don Byrd
Missouri’s House Bill 267 would allow school districts to offer elective classes on the Old and New Testaments. An effort to expand the religious texts covered in the course was rejected by lawmakers, who have now sent the measure to the State Senate for consideration.
An insightful editorial from the St. Louis Jewish Light provides some helpful context and argues against its passage:
Critics immediately pointed out that the Bible isn’t the only religious text that Missouri students and their families consider sacred. In response, an amendment was offered that would have included a library of texts, from the Quran to the Book of Mormon to the Upanishads and beyond — an attempt that failed to make it into the final bill that the House overwhelmingly approved and sent to the Senate last week.
But even the pared down list of religious texts, if it passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Mike Parson, is liable to stir up another legal battle, as it should. The Senate should let the bill die a well-deserved death. The simple distinction between teaching and preaching is too easily ignored when religious texts are introduced in public schools, even as electives.
Practice religion in a house of worship; keep schools free of religious influence.
As I have argued in previous posts on this subject, the U.S. Constitution already allows for the study of sacred texts in public schools courses on, for example, literature, history, or world religions. The issue is not whether biblical passages and stories can lawfully be incorporated into the public school curriculum; clearly they can. The issue is the threat of indoctrination and the appearance of religious favoritism by offering a class that dives deeply into just one religious text.
In the broader scope of legislation related religion in public schools, an even more concerning question is why are so many states considering similar legislation, under whose influence, and for what purpose?
The Baptist Joint Committee joined a coalition of advocates opposed to the coordinated campaign called “Project Blitz” that is pushing such legislation. The coalition warns of the “alarming effort… to harness the power of the government to impose the faith of some onto everyone else, including our public school students.” As Executive Director Amanda Tyler added, “Anything that might send a message to our children that you have to be a Christian to be a full American is extremely problematic.”
Legislators often seek to justify bills like this as creating clarity in the law and support for local schools. On a practical level, as the St. Louis Jewish Light points out, the likely outcome is just the opposite. Such legislation only invites lawsuits once school districts start offering these courses. They are unnecessary, potentially costly, and risk undermining the religious liberty of students, parents, and taxpayers.
For more on this topic, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Religion and Public Schools Resources and their Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools. Also see other Missouri-related blog posts, and posts related to Religion in Pubic Schools.