In 2007, legislators in Texas passed House Bill 1287, which was duly signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry. The bill gave public school districts throughout the state the option of offering "elective courses on the Bible's Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament."
Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a statewide organization that works to defend separation of church and state, responded by asking Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to examine some of the classes that had been created in an attempt to determine what was being taught in Texas classrooms.
One of Chancey's reports, "Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses In 2011-12," looked at Bible classes being offered in 57 school districts and three charter schools. Chancey found a mixed bag. While some school districts were doing a pretty good job of offering objective instruction, others seemed to have veered wildly off course.
In Belton Independent School District, for example, students were being given a pamphlet published by the American Tract Society titled "One Nation Under God." The pamphlet asserts, "The United States was founded on the principles of liberty in the Holy Bible and the reverence of the Founding Fathers" and adds, "Giving God His rightful place in the national life of this country has provided a rich heritage for all its citizens. Yet, wonderful as the benefits of that heritage may be, a true relationship to God is not a matter of national declaration but rather the personal responsibility of each individual citizen."
It concluded by asking, "Would you like to place your trust in Jesus Christ and receive Him as your Savior from Sin?"
Belton wasn't the only the district using problematic materials. Chancey found that some districts were assigning the book Heaven Is For Real, which purports to tell the story of a 3-year-old named Todd Burpo who claims he visited Heaven during a near-death experience. Other districts were screening videos produced by churches or movies made by evangelical Christian firms with clear proselytizing messages.
As Chancey noted, some of this material is "difficult to reconcile with the Supreme Court's benchmark of an objective approach to the study of the Bible as part of a secular program of education."
Despite the problems Texas had experienced with Bible classes, such courses are catching on in other states. Several have been introduced in legislatures this year.
The drive got a boost Jan. 28 when President Donald Trump, apparently motivated to act by a segment on Bible literacy courses aired on Fox News Channel's "Fox & Friends" program, issued a tweet announcing his support.
"Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible," wrote Trump. "Starting to make a turn back? Great!"
Trump's endorsement of the classes caught the media's attention, and several news outlets ran stories on Bible literacy courses and how they might affect public schools.
Some reporters turned to Americans United for help. In an interview with USA Today, Rachel Laser, AU's president and CEO, called for caution.
"State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren," Laser said.
Laser's comment captured the concern Americans United and other organizations have over these classes: While they sound acceptable in theory, the implementation often turns out to be highly problematic.
AU says there's further cause for concern because the current push for Bible literacy courses is being backed by the Religious Right-led Project Blitz. Among the...