School District Hopes Bible Class Passes Constitutional Muster

For years, public schools have been reluctant to teach about the Bible, fearing it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. But one religious scholar hopes to change that.

Matthew Hicks, 32, who holds a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Georgia and a master’s in theological studies from Emory University, has created a high school course entitled "Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures" that he hopes can be legally taught in public schools.

The curriculum, designed for juniors and seniors, takes a scholarly approach to the Old Testament. Students study the way different sects of Christians and Jews interpret the Bible, as well as how Scripture has influenced history and art.

"It presents a very fair, very neutral presentation of the Bible in a way that I think is academically responsible, constitutionally sound and religiously fair," Hicks said.

Hicks has not written a student textbook, but he has created a set of 35 lesson plans for teachers to use as an outline for a semester-long elective course that could be put to the test as early as this fall.

On Jan. 31, the Shelby County School Board in Memphis approved Hicks’ curriculum 6-0, with one abstention.

This was the second time in as many years that Shelby County educators tried to offer an elective Bible class. The first course, which sought to teach the Bible as a history book, was struck down by state education officials.

But Hicks, who refuses to discuss his own religious views, said his course is so neutral, it would most likely meet state approval.

Even ardent critics of religion in school believe the class passes constitutional muster. But some worry it could open the door to abuse.

"We have to worry about teachers using this as an opportunity to proselytize their own religious faith," said Cheri Delbrocco of the Public Issues Forum, a grassroots organization that opposes the course.

School officials insist those fears are unfounded.

"We take a very strong position that no proselytizing, no advancing the cause of any particular religion, will be tolerated," said school board chairman David Pickler. "This is designed as an objective study of a very important book."

The course focuses exclusively on the Old Testament. While that may help this predominantly Protestant school district escape accusations of Christian evangelism, some parents said they are disappointed that the New Testament was left out to make the class "politically correct."

Nonetheless, advocates of religious study in school said Hicks’ curriculum is far better than the status quo of ignoring religion altogether.

Reflecting on his own grade school experience, Hicks said, "I was shocked that we asked students to take 12 years of math, but not a single course on religious studies, world religions or Biblical studies."