DALLAS – A Texas legislator wants to require the state's nearly 1,700 public school districts to teach the Bible as a textbook, "not a worship document."
The House Public Education Committee was set late Tuesday to consider — but not vote on — a bill by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, mandating high schools to offer history and literacy courses on the Old and New Testaments. The courses would be elective.
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.
"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," said Chisum. "We're taking it as a document that has historical value. It's the most widely distributed book in the world."
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.
"'Christian' here means Protestant, by the way. Roman Catholic interpretations are almost invisible in most courses," he said.
Critics also argue that the bill's implementation this fall is too soon to have qualified Bible scholars in place.