A measure designed to shield schools from liability for teaching Bible curriculum is unconstitutional and should not be heard in the Oklahoma Legislature, critics contend.
State Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) introduced Senate Bill 48, which would protect school districts and its employees and agents from litigation as a result of providing an elective course in the “objective study of religion or the Bible.”
Loveless sponsored the bill because Mustang Public School officials decided in December 2014 not to offer an elective class on historical facts in the Bible after news sparked a national debate. Mustang schools are part of Loveless’ Senate district.
The Green Scholars Initiative, a group associated with the conservative Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, proposed an early draft of a Bible class for the Mustang district. The proposal drew criticism from First Amendment advocates because of its connection to the Green family’s Museum of the Bible.
Still, other critics such as the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-OK) contend the bill would be unable to carry out its intent.
“If a public school district teaches the Bible from a religious perspective, it will generally violate the First Amendment,” said ACLU-OK Legal Director Brady Henderson. “Because the First Amendment is part of the U.S. Constitution, which is a higher law than state law, a state statute like the one proposed in SB 48, has no ability to impact a state’s liability in a constitutional case.”
Likewise, Henderson said, a state statute cannot impact what type of curriculum is and is not constitutional.
“Because the Constitution strikes the balance, SB 48, if passed, would not be able to change what violates the First Amendment,” he said.
However, Loveless contends the curriculum, which hasn’t been written, would focus on the history and literature of Biblical times.
“The Bible is the number one selling book of all time. There is great historical perspective that students can learn from without religion being taught,” the senator said.
Already, many public schools use references to the Bible when teaching secular subjects such as history, culture or literary analysis, leading some legal analysts to suggest that the proposed legislation does not offer any new protection from liability because those curricula generally don’t violate the Constitution.
“Overall, the bill provides no real shield for schools, but could encourage some districts to engage in illegal behavior through a false sense of immunity,” said Henderson, who referred to the measure as a “seriously flawed solution to a non-existent problem.”
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on Loveless to drop the proposed legislation.
Calling the bill a “dangerous encroachment” into the separation of church and state, any particular interpretation of the Bible as truth would not be open to people of other faiths or no faith at all, CAIR officials said.
CAIR spokeswoman Veronica Laizure pointed to the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from making a law respecting an establishment of religion.
“This phrase has been interpreted over the years to mean that the state may not provide aid to religion, allow it to intrude into state functions or sponsor any religious doctrines or symbols,” Laizure said. “Any statute that does so must have a secular legislative purpose, and not have a primary effect that advances or inhibits religion, and not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
Loveless countered that the course would be an elective, not a required course for graduation.
“Remember, there were 20 spots for the class in Mustang and 200 kids tried to enroll,” he said. “This would not be a Sunday school class, which deals more with faith. The local school board would be the one responsible for the curriculum and deciding if it was objective.”
The senator’s proposal has created a firestorm of publicity, including an appearance on Fox News and a story in The Huffington Post.
“It’s gotten a ton of support locally and in Oklahoma while the opposition has come from outside the state,” he said, referring to the criticism as “knee-jerk reactionary politics.”