A bill allowing school districts to make the Bible the subject of an elective course in public schools is being defended by its sponsor as a way to understand U.S. history but supporters outside the General Assembly back it as a way to bring Christian religion into classrooms.
The Missouri House approved the bill sponsored by state Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, last week by a vote of 95 to 52. If approved in the Senate, it would allow school districts to offer an elective social studies course based on the Jewish Bible, The New Testament or both.
The House rejected efforts to include other religious texts. Among Boone County lawmakers, state Reps. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, and Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, voted for it while state Reps. Kip Kendrick and Martha Stevens, both Columbia Democrats, were opposed.
The course described in the bill would not teach religion, Baker said in an interview. Instead, it would teach the Bible’s history and influence on the culture and society of the United States, including on the country’s Founding Fathers.
“The history classes seem to have very little on the history as described in the Bible and how our Founding Fathers used the Bible,” Baker said in an interview. “In the past few years, a few states did approve a Bible literacy class. I took that option and modified it for Missouri.”
Baker said it would be an elective course and adoption is voluntary for school districts. For those reasons, he said he thinks it wouldn’t violate students’ First Amendment rights.
“It’s not teaching religion,” Baker said. “It’s teaching the Bible.”
School districts may have had the ability to offer such a course in the past, he said, but the ambiguous language in current law has scared them away from that.
The texts of other religions have value and districts are free to continue to offer comparative religion courses, but no other books have the influence on our country that the Bible does.
“It’s very specific in the bill, it’s not teaching religion,” Baker said.
Walsh said it’s a good bill.
“It’s completely under the control of the school districts to offer this,” Walsh said. “It is an elective course. It is not a religion course. It is a social studies course on the influence of the Bible on our society and culture. The Bible has had a profound effect on our government from its beginning.”
She said students from minority religions or no religion would have the right to opt out of the course or to lobby their school board not to adopt the course.
“If you look at the paragraph on religious neutrality, it doesn’t endorse or disfavor any religion,” Walsh said. “It’s right there in the statute. It’s not putting any religion over any other.”
That interpretation isn’t necessarily the same as views of the bill at the local level.
During a school board candidate forum Thursday in Mexico, where eight candidates are running for two open positions, some hopefuls said they are enthusiastic about the course.
“One hundred percent, yes,” said candidate Hailey Schutte.
She said the Bible has been removed from schools and that she is a Christian and raises her children as Christians so this course should be available to students.
“Yes, absolutely,” said candidate Nick Tietsort. “I’m Catholic and as a a Christian I feel that it’s our duty called by Jesus Christ to evangelize.”
Other candidates said other religions should be included in the elective course.
Reisch declined to explain her vote when contacted. Basye and Stevens didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment.
Kendrick said the time spent debating the bill was time wasted that the House could have spent debating important issues including workforce development and highway infrastructure.
“The legislation is not necessary,” Kendrick said. “All school districts can teach the history of the Bible and other religious texts. This bill would narrowly focus on the Bible alone.”
He said if it becomes law, it will be challenged in the courts. He said several amendments were offered and rejected to include other religious texts in the bill. Kendrick said he thinks schools do a good job of teaching the Bible in the context of world religions and comparative religions courses.
“Public schools should not be placing any religious text above any other,” Kendrick said.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the bill and its prospects in the Senate.
Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said he would wait for the bill’s outcome in the Senate, adding that the district has several course offerings that included the Bible, but not to the exclusion of other texts. He said there’s an elective course in comparative religions, which allows students to learn about world religions. He said sixth- and seventh-grade state learning standards already require learning about religion in a historical context.
He said the Classical Beliefs class at the high school level does an excellent job of comparative readings from the texts of world beliefs systems, including the Jewish Bible and the New Testament.
“It goes above and beyond the requirements of the bill,” Stiepleman said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri opposes the bill because it excludes other religious texts.
“What is at stake here is not the right to religious freedom, but the imposition of a particular set of religious beliefs on students,” Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU, wrote in an email. “It would be nearly impossible to teach a class that would not violate a student’s First Amendment rights. Every student, regardless of faith, should feel safe and welcome in their public schools. When school officials promote religion generally, or signal their preference for one faith, it sends a message that students who follow other religions, or no religion at all, do not belong.”
The Mexico Ledger reporter Charles Dunlap contributed to this report.