AUSTIN, Texas – A state House committee took no action on a bill to require school districts to offer an elective high school-level courses on the Old and New Testaments and use Bibles as text books.
"We're not going to preach the Bible, we're going to teach the Bible and how it affects all of our writings, documents and the formation of our government," Chisum said. "We're taking it as a document that has historical value. It's the most widely distributed book in the world."
• SPEAKOUT: Is Teaching Religion in School a Step in the Right Direction?
The Republican rep said the measure would allow students to investigate links between the Bible and the U.S. system of laws. But critics say such courses tend to promote religious views that discriminate against various other faiths.
The idea of teaching the Bible in school seems to be undergoing a revival nationally. Two literature classes on the Bible are included on a list of state-approved courses that Georgia public schools could choose to offer beginning next year. Some critics say it would be the first state to take an explicit stance endorsing and funding biblical teachings.
The Texas measure goes a step farther — requiring school districts to make such courses available, advocates on both sides agreed.
A study by the liberal watchdog group Texas Freedom Network last year identified 25 high schools in the state already offering such courses and said that many have serious problems.
The proposed legislation puts school districts in legal jeopardy, said Kathy Miller, TFN's director, who was joined at a news conference by theologians and clergy members opposed to the bill.
"These courses are often more about the religious beliefs of the teachers rather than true academic studies of the importance of the Bible in history and literature," she said.
The Chisum bill says the Old and New Testaments should each be the "basic textbook" for the courses.
The Greensboro, N.C.-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools promotes its curriculum as the only one that uses the Bible as its primary textbook. Supporters include the conservative American Family Association, Eagle Forum and Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute.
Elizabeth Ridenour, the council's president, said the group's material is already being used in 54 Texas school districts.
"The Texas Freedom Network will make any negative statement they can to try to basically blow smoke to scare people about this," she said. "We've never been legally challenged, and they know that. If what they say is happening were happening, lawsuits would have been filed a long time ago."
The bill says the courses must be taught in an "objective and nondevotional manner" that does not attempt to indoctrinate students.
But Mark Chancey, an associate professor in religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Judaism fares poorly in such courses. Students, he said, are taught how to read the Bible from a Christian perspective.
Critics also argue that the bill's implementation this fall is too soon to have qualified Bible scholars in place.