KY’s Public School “Bible Literacy” Standards Leave Many Legal Issues Unresolved June 8, 2018

KY’s Public School “Bible Literacy” Standards Leave Many Legal Issues Unresolved

Last July, Kentucky passed a bill (House Bill 128) allowing elective Bible courses in public schools. That, on the surface, isn’t illegal. You can teach the Bible as literature, for example, without a problem, as long as you stick to discussing the Bible as literature. What we often see in districts that offer classes like these is that indoctrination seeps through.

The past January, after filing Freedom of Information Act requests from public school districts across the state, the ACLU of Kentucky found that the Bible classes in question (wait for it) frequently crossed the line regarding legality.

The investigation uncovered public school teachers using the Bible to impart religious life lessons (Barren, McCracken, and Letcher Counties), use of online Sunday School lessons and worksheets for course source material and assignments (Letcher and Wayne Counties), and rote memorization of Biblical text (McCracken County) — practices which fall far short of academic and objective study of the Bible and its historical context or literary value.

The classes, while perfectly fine for Sunday School, had no business being taught in public schools.

As for the memorization, Brian Harper, the superintendent of McCracken County schools, said it wasn’t a big deal: Kids memorize poetry, too. But the ACLU noted that these classes had kids memorize 2 Corinthians 12:10 and Psalm 23, without ever probing “any deeper into an academic or intellectual understanding of the Bible and its influences.” (Memorizing poetry is pointless without that deeper understanding of the text, too.)

In another county, kids watched the movie God’s Not Dead 2 in class.

The most egregious example, perhaps, was the teacher who, given no guidance as to what she needed to teach, just asked the students what they wanted to learn. She spent the whole course answering their questions. Among the items on their list?

Is there evidence to support the Bible and all of the stories within it?

Dinosaurs and mythological creatures, what does the Bible say about them?

Does Christianity influence other religions and if so how?

The Ark Adventure in Kentucky — can we go see it?

Using this information, the ACLU made a broader point to the Kentucky Board of Education: Get your shit together when writing these standards.

Our investigation now vividly illustrates the myriad of problems that can arise in our classrooms when they operating without proper guidance and training. Now, we look to the KDE to promulgate academic standards in this arena that can pass constitutional muster.

On Wednesday of this week, the KDE unanimously approved new “Bible literacy” standards, broken up into three areas:

Disciplinary Literacy

  • Analyze literary aspects of the Bible.
  • Determine and analyze the themes, concepts, figures, places and events depicted in biblical texts.
  • Recognize and analyze various literary forms and genres found in biblical texts.
  • Identify and analyze figurative language and literary structures in biblical texts.

Historical Thinking

  • Analyze the interplay of economic, political, social, geographical, historical, cultural, linguistic and anthropological impacts on the development of biblical texts.
  • Examine biblical texts considering a variety of textual elements.
  • Analyze biblical texts, engaging in the skills of sourcing, close reading, contextualizing and comparing.
  • Compare and contrast various Bible versions to analyze the contextual influences of canons, translations and editions.

Analyzing Influences

  • Analyze the relationships between the Bible and society and culture.
  • Examine the influence of the Bible on historical, political and social movements and realities.
  • Analyze influences of the Bible on the development of religious and secular identities.
  • Determine the interplay between the Bible and cultural expressions through the examination of a variety of literature, art, language, oratory and music.

Those are pretty broad and bland, as they should be. These aren’t lesson plans; they’re guidelines. The question now is what the state will do when they find out teachers are veering off this path. It looks like the KDE is already saying they can’t be blamed for anything:

Board spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez says individual schools, not the state, are responsible for ensuring that teachers follow the standards.

That’s a polite way of telling church/state separation groups to sue the districts, not the state, in case of any legal problems. (The ACLU of Kentucky hasn’t publicly responded to the new standards.)

There’s no reason to think the districts will change up what they’re doing. While the teachers are supposed to make sure they’re following the new standards, it’s up to them to decide how to implement the new guidelines, and if they were breaking the law before, there’s nothing in the guidelines to stop them from breaking the law now. (In theory, watching God’s Not Dead 2 in class could be considered analyzing “the relationships between the Bible and society and culture.” It would also be illegal.) It’s not like the KDE made clear to teachers that proselytizing and promoting the Bible is forbidden.

So these standards by themselves aren’t a problem, but many of the classes and educators remain a concern. You can expect lawsuits to fly if the districts don’t get their acts straight.

(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link

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