Unholy Mandate 

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Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr

Should Texans read something into the fact that hearings on a bill mandating high schools teach the Bible — Christianity’s holy text — started on the same night Passover began? If you know what the celebration of the Exodus is, then you’re smarter than a parade of university professors who testified before the House Public Education Committee last week think you are — they said Texans lack an understanding of the Bible and this harms their college performance.

House Bill 1287 by State Representative Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican and chair of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, would fix this problem, they said, by requiring every Texas public high school to offer courses on the history and literature of the Bible as an elective.

While most people rightfully view Chisum’s bill as the Religious Right’s latest attempt to force Christian beliefs into Texas public schools, professors from Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas talked about how important an understanding of the Bible is for college students. In other words, with help from academia — usually supportive of the church/state division — conservatives shifted the debate from the constitutional issue of church-state separation to whether or not Texas public school children can adequately understand Dante’s Inferno or the first line of Melville’s Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”) without knowledge of the Bible.

“What I’ve decided to focus on in my testimony is students who have come to me and talked to me and say they feel robbed because they do not have the Bible knowledge to understand the literature,” Dr. Darci Hill, an assistant professor in the department of English at Sam Houston told the committee.

Hill’s students may indeed feel robbed, but if they do, it is their own fault. Under probative questioning from Representative Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat, Hill admitted that Sam Houston offers courses in the Bible as literature — which are open only to English majors and minors — but are not required to obtain such a degree. Pot, meet Kettle.

The real people getting robbed on this one will be Texas public schools and their students. For something billed as essential college preparation, Chisum’s bill mandates not only that the Bible itself be used as the primary text for the course — something several witnesses cautioned against — but that each school be allowed to design their own curriculum for teaching the elective course.

Oh, Jesus.

A study provided to the committee by the non-partisan Texas Freedom Network, a group that monitors the Religious Right in Texas, showed that of 25 schools who taught Bible courses in Texas in recent years, only three did better than what could easily be called a half-assed job. One school actually used the popular childrens’ video series Veggie Tales to help teach the class. Under Chisum’s bill, schools would be free to determine what may be taught in the class and even who is qualified to teach it (as you read this, the telephones of Baptist ministers are probably ringing off the hook). Though the bill mandates that the course not be evangelizing in nature, it is unlikely this will be the case in all of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts. This, of course, will likely results in lawsuits, as happened in Florida and other states, meaning that the big moneychangers in the temple will be the lawyers, while taxpayers get saddled with the legal fees.

Some legal fights could be avoided if the state adopted a standard curriculum for instruction of the Bible class (even though some scholars and experts who testified before the committee said that task would take a while — say more than the number of days of the Flood lasted but less than the number of years The Israilites wandered the Sinai Desert).

And, therein lies the problem and the paradox. The problem is the State Board of Education. For every other course, from physics to American history, the State Board of Education adopts curriculum standards and textbooks. Handing the SBOE carte blanche to develop a Bible curriculum is like handing Judas a sack with 40 pieces of silver: The final outcome isn’t going to be pretty. The notoriously right-wing SBOE would probably go farther to the right than Chisum’s bill intends, in the process crossing constitutional boundaries like Moses crossed the Red Sea. Yet, they are essentially the only statutory body who could mandate a uniform curriculum statewide. Thus, since there are probably more legislators who would just as soon not hand the SBOE this hot potato as would ultimately like to see this bill passed, the uniform standards could likely be the deal-killer. 



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