Praying in Public School
Terry H. Schwadron
May 22, 2019
The Trump administration has proposed a 12% cut in Department of Education spending under its yearly budget. Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos is busily eliminating programs to help public schools and promoting private education efforts under the motto of choice.
Yet somehow, there is support magically for the growth of teaching Christian Bible classes in public schools.
Once again, we have an out-and-out statement about what is important in this administration — not school shootings, not affirmative efforts to improve public education, not help with student debt or even the pursuit of growing sexual assault on school campuses.
Counseling Today magazine argues, for example, that it has become necessary to lobby seriously to keep federal money for school mental health. The Trump administration’s federal budget proposal cut $8.5 billion from the Department of Education, including the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program. That program supported, among other things, mental health, school security and safety, community engagement — the kind of programs that would seem the talk we hear after every school shooting.
Instead, Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer detailed the movement of church Bible classes from churches into public schools. She took us to Kentucky, where a new state law — one of several pending in other states — is encouraging public high schools to teach the Bible, not as part of a survey of religions, but as Bible study.
Through a legislative effort Project Blitz, activists on the religious right, have drafted a law that encourages Bible classes in public schools and persuaded at least 10 state legislatures to introduce versions of it this year. Georgia and Arkansas recently passed bills that are awaiting their governors’ signatures. Among the powerful fans of these public-school Bible classes is President Trump. “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible,” Trump tweeted in January. “Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
According to the Post, proponents of Bible instruction, including Chuck Stetson, who publishes a textbook that he says is in use in more than 600 public schools across the nation, are enthused. “We’re not too far away from a tipping point. Instead of having to find a reason to teach the Bible in public schools academically, as part of a good education, you’re going to have to find a reason not to do it,” Stetson said. “When the president of the United States gives us a shout-out, that’s pretty crazy. . . . It’s got the momentum now.”
On the other side, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan advocacy group organizing opposition to the state laws, coordinated a statement signed by numerous religious groups that oppose Project Blitz’s efforts.
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that school-led Bible reading is an unconstitutional religious practice. But the court noted that teaching the Bible was allowed: “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
Both those in favor of Bible classes and against see the Bible as a key component of a well-rounded education, particularly if part of history classes. Sometimes schools have offered “released time” rules that let students use part of their school day attending church-taught classes. But that is not what is called for in the state bills supported by Project Blitz, an effort of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which describes its purpose as protecting “the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square.”
The model for many states is Kentucky, where state standards for elective Bible education became the law in 2017. The American Civil Liberties Union swiftly responded, issuing a letter that said it would closely monitor all school districts in the state. The organization flagged four school districts in Kentucky, warning that the materials used to teach the Bible in those schools suggested they were violating the Constitution and might lead to a future ACLU lawsuit. Two of the four districts have since stopped offering a Bible class, saying student interest was low. In the other two, rural counties, dominated by evangelical Christians, teachers lead prayers over the loudspeaker.
The content of these classes has clashed with conclusions reached elsewhere in science classes, say, concerning evolution or even information about other religions.
DeVos has made clear that she supports moving public school support to parochial schools. It would seem that several states just want to merge the two.