(Gray News) – With the vocal support of President Donald Trump, activists are pushing to return religious studies, particularly those concerning the Bible, to prominence in public schools.
The president brought the issue to the forefront with a tweet on Monday, in which he said a number of states were “introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible.”
“Starting to make a turn back?” Trump wrote. “Great!”
Christian beliefs used to feature heavily in American public education, but with a series of rulings in the early 1960s, the Supreme Court largely held that mandating by law rituals such as group prayer and Bible readings in public classrooms was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
That clause reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In cases such as School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, which invalidated a state law requiring the reading of 10 Bible verses at the opening of each school day, and Engel v. Vitale, which barred a New York school district from requiring teachers to recite a prayer at the beginning of a school day, the Warren Court held that statutes bringing religion into the classroom were unconstitutional.
But modern religious and conservative movements have rallied around the historic importance of the Bible and its educational value within that context as a reason to bring it back into public school curricula.
A Federalist article last year argued the Bible is an “indispensable font from which springs the art, history, philosophy and governmental structures of our society.”
“Biblical literacy, which is to say a basic, functioning knowledge of the stories of the Bible, is essential to have a full understanding of how our society works and why it differs so dramatically from others,” the Federalist author, David Marcus, wrote. “This is why it must be thoroughly taught in public schools.”
“Yeah, there’s a separation of church and state, but there’s not a separation of books from education,” Aaron McWilliams, a North Dakota state representative who co-sponsored one such bill there, told Fox News this week. “If we don’t have a good foundational understanding of this, we’re not going to understand how the Founding Fathers of our country and other countries put it together to have the world we have today.”
But critics have argued that the actual classes wind up being less an academic examination of the Bible’s place in history and more a reinforcement of Christian belief.
When Kentucky enacted a Bible literacy law in 2017, the state’s ACLU branch said it “uncovered public school teachers using the Bible to impart religious life lessons, the use of online Sunday School lessons and worksheets for course source material and assignments and rote memorization of Biblical text” in a number of counties.
The ACLU described these as “practices which fall far short of constitutionally-permissive academic and objective study of the Bible and its historical context or literary value.”
These laws have mostly faced an uphill battle so far. After Kentucky enacted its law in 2017, similar bills failed to pass in Alabama, West Virginia and Iowa last year.
And in North Dakota, the bill McWilliams backed has already been shot down in the state senate, 42-5.
A pastor in Virginia who supports the laws, Larry Miles, told WWBT it nonetheless has to be handled carefully in order to toe the line between academic examination and spiritual endorsement.
“You’re going to teach old and new testament from an educational perspective,” he said. “Leave the spirituality stuff to the Lord’s church and that’s where church and state can be separated.”