"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Saying No to Texas Bible Bill

The editorial board of the Houston Chronicle lays out some solid reasons to vote no on the state bill to require schools to offer courses in the Bible:

STATE Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, has proposed a bill that would require all Texas public school districts to offer high school students an elective course in the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments. Chisum, who heads the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, arguably the most powerful committee in either chamber, insists that the Bible would be used as "the basic textbook" for such courses, "not a worship document." The bill would require districts to make a Bible course available if at least 15 students signed up for it.

Terrific — on its face. The Bible has had a tremendous influence on Western civilization, and Texas students could benefit from studying its impact on all areas of American life, laws and culture. But given the record of most schools that already have such programs, the lack of resources available and the apparent motivation of the bill's author, the courses would wind up being oriented toward a particular branch of Christianity and therefore discriminatory, opening the way for court challenges.

Consider first of all its author: Chisum, well-known for his fundamentalist views, shocked even conservative colleagues in February when he circulated to all Texas House members a memo, written by Georgia GOP Rep. Ben Bridges, containing what the Anti-Defamation League termed "outrageous anti-Semitic material." The memo also made the ridiculous claim that the teaching of evolution in public schools violates the Constitution.

Last September, the Texas Freedom Network, which calls itself "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right," surveyed all of Texas' 1,000-plus public school districts and prepared a report based on instructional materials obtained from the 25 school districts that offered a Bible course in the 2005-06 school year. The report found that many of them failed to meet minimal academic standards and promoted religious views that discriminate against children of various faiths. Its author, Prof. Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University, said, "Many schools portray their Bible classes as social studies or literature courses, yet, intentionally or not, most are really courses about the religious beliefs of the teacher or minister leading the class or of those who created the course materials."

When another legislator asked Chisum what he wanted the bill to accomplish, he answered, in part, that the United States fares better than other countries, not because it has more resources, but because, thanks to the Bible, "we have a moral standard. Not everybody has a moral standard."

Studying the Bible without a particular sectarian bias would enrich the education of every Texas student, but — especially in a post-9/11 world — respect and scholarly attention must also be paid to other world religions, most of which are represented among Texas' multicultural students. It is of vital importance that such courses be impartially crafted and taught by thoroughly qualified teachers. This bill as it stands offers none of these safeguards: It has no provision for statewide curriculum standards, specialized teacher training or course materials. It has nothing to recommend it and should be rejected by lawmakers.

One small irony: After the bill made its way to the House Public Education Committee, that committee's chair, Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, decided last week to postpone a vote on it because Jewish groups observing Passover were unable to testify.

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