The class would “teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture,” said Democratic Sen. David Boswell of Owensboro, the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 142.
Boswell, a Catholic, said the bill is intended to teach Bible literacy as an academic course, “not as the only religion,” but opponents labeled the proposal an unconstitutional “back-door approach to teaching religion.”
Edwin F. Kagin, national legal director of American Atheists, called the measure “a rampant violation of the separation of church and state.”
Kagin, of Union in Boone County, said students certainly should know biblical references, such as David and Goliath. “But if the Bible is taught in schools it should only be taught as mythology, and I don’t think that is what this bill wants.”
Boswell acknowledged that the proposal also will likely bring criticism from those who would favor the teaching of other religious texts, such as the Koran.
“Since the Bible has played such a big role in our literature, I thought I would go with that,” he said.
Boswell stressed that the proposed Bible class would be an elective. The state Department of Education would have to come up with regulations to implement the course and school-based decision-making councils would have to sign off on it, he said.
Boswell said he filed the bill at the request of a group of people in his Western Kentucky district. Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, and Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
Kagin said similar legislation has “been popping up all over the country.”
“Why are they doing this?” he asked. “Why not teach courses about the history of the Babylonians and other peoples and civilizations of the time? It is an attempt to teach the entire Bible as truth.”
Sarah Jenislawski applauds Boswell’s bill. She is executive director of the Bible Literacy Project, a non-profit endeavor in Front Royal, Va., to encourage study of the Bible in public schools.
“An educated person is familiar with the Bible,” said Jenislawski, who said she learned about Boswell’s bill after it was introduced last week.
“Teaching of the Bible is legal as long as it doesn’t push one religion over another,” Jenislawski said. “We support allowing state education departments to come up with regulations to be sure the teaching is proper and that’s what appears to be the case in the Kentucky legislature.”
Her group, offers a student textbook for public school courses on the Bible entitled “The Bible and Its Influence.”
She insisted that the course provides an academic study of the Bible’s narratives and their influence on literature and culture and does not promote or discourage religious belief.
For example, she said the course teaches what the Bible says about accounts of the death and Resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. But “it is left up to the student to decide what to believe,” she said.
She said nine public schools in Kentucky already teach the curriculum but she did not have a readily available list of schools.
According to the Bible Literacy Project, more than 350 public schools in 43 states have implemented courses on the Bible this school year. More than 50 are in Texas.
In 2007, Texas lawmakers passed a law requiring public high schools to teach Bible literacy beginning this year. The law did not call for specific guidelines from the state education department and left many educators confused.
As of late Monday, Boswell’s bill had not been assigned to a committee for its consideration.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said he could not comment on the measure because he has not yet seen it.