Most locals shy away from school Bible classes

While other states have proposed legilslation to allow public schools to offer elective courses on the Bible, Oklahoma has not implemented any similar measures, and according to online polls, area residents would only favor such a measure if it allowed schools teach the components of all religions.

Last year, more than 10 states introduced legislation that would allow public schools to offer elective course to teach the Bible, some of which passed, while others died before getting a hearing.

This year, lawmakers in the West Virginia House and Senate passed a bill that would allow high schools to offer "an elective social studies course on Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, New Testament of the Bible, or Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible." While one state lawmaker proposed a bill to make 2020 the "Year of the Bible" in Oklahoma, the Legislature has not proposed any bills this year to incorporate Bible classes in public education. However, it has left people considering whether religious studies should be included in the school curriculum.

According to Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Leon Ashlock, TPS does not offer an Bible course, but religions do come up in some world history courses - from a historical viewpoint.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said there are concerns of a budget shortfall due to a drop oil prices, so he doesn't expect to see any extra funding for such classes.

"If you wanted to offer a course on religions of the world and teach it as a social studies elective, and talk about the different religions and where they came from - as long as you're teaching it from a historical perspective and not teaching religion itself - you could do that. But I don't know any schools that are," said Pemberton, who is the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education chair. "And we're sure not expanding curriculum offerings right now, because of the funding levels, since we're back into a shortfall again. So I don't anticipate any school district's going to add those curriculums, but they could if they did it in such a way that it's from a historical perspective."

A bill to allow schools to teach Bible studies is not unprecedented in Oklahoma. Last year, an emergency measure to teach Bible classes in schools was filed, but did not receive much attention. And in 2010, a bill authorizing districts to offer elective courses on the Hebrew Scriptures and the new Testament passed the Senate, but later died after moving to the House for consideration.

If a similar measure is proposed again, State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, said he would first consider what his constituents want.

"As I do on every vote I take, if the people of Cherokee County and my District 4 want me to vote for it, I will," said Meredith. "I believe in the Bible and my kids go to church with us, but if that ever comes about, we'll just have to go over it and see what the bill says. It's hard to discuss something that's hypothetical when there are a lot of things that could go into a bill that could determine whether you should or shouldn't support it."

Some states have considered legislation that would require schools to offer Bible instruction courses, but they have shied away from that type of proposal. Cherokee County Democrats Vice Chair Dell Barnes would like to keep it that way. He said requiring schools to offer such classes "approaches the sort of imposition from which our Constitution is supposed to protect our public institutions."

"If the school or school board wishes to have academic offerings on the topic, I think most people would find that reasonable, but ecclesiastical coursework should not be funded by our public schools," said Barnes.

Justin Kennedy, Cherokee County Young Republicans chair, said there is a difference between allowing people to practice religious freedom and allowing the state to institute a national religion. And while he doesn't think schools should be required to teach Bible courses, he doesn't see anything wrong with students learning from scriptures.

"As far as offering it as an elective, nobody gets upset that we offer French as an elective, whether or not you find it useful," he said. "Especially going through the New Testament, there's plenty of instruction on taking care of your neighbors and taking care of your family. I think it's a great thing to study the Bible. Taking a look at the Bible from a historical aspect, even for a secular person who's not necessarily religiously affiliated, can be beneficial. I think it'd be great to have that offered as an elective."

The Daily Press asked readers in a Saturday Forum whether schools should offer a course on religious teachings. The majority of respondents don't believe there should be any requirements to take such courses, but many felt that educating students on all of the world's religions could be productive.

"If you're doing it, you need to do comparative religion, and teach students how to think about religion as a cultural phenomenon and its place in the world," said Billy Hunter. "The whole 'we need God back in schools' argument is frankly just so stupid. A school system that is meant to build extraordinary minds - unfortunately, ours is not - has no room for dogma."

Some folks think public schools should stick to their current curriculum.

"It's best to just keep it out," said Brett Hiseley. "You would have to teach each religion and not just do Christianity. Why open this can of worms? Public schools have a hard enough time. anyways."

In an online poll on the Daily Press website, readers were asked if Bible classes should be taught in public schools. Out of the 143 respondents, 59 said, "Definitely not; it violates the separation of church and state;" 30 people said, "Absolutely, and as a required core class;" 24 respondents said, "Maybe, but only as an elective;" 18 people answered, "Probably not, but schools might consider letting students choose to study it themselves in a free period; and 12 readers said, "Maybe, but only if other faith traditions are taught."

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For more responses on teaching Bible classes in public schools, go to www.facebook.com/tdpress and scroll down to the March 7 Saturday Forum.

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