Georgia Eyes High-School Bible-History Classes
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
Georgia is about to become the first state to give official approval to Bible study in public schools. Lawmakers say an elective class would teach students about the scripture's impact on western culture.
Emily Kopp, of Georgia Public Broadcasting, reports on a controversial proposal.
EMILY KOPP reporting:
Georgia Republicans and Democrats seem to agree: youth today don't know enough about the Bible. House Democrats leader DeBose Porter says they should.
State Representative DEBOSE PORTER (Democrat, Georgia): To be educated, students need to have a background in the Bible--to understand western civilization, to understand literature, to understand southern literature, to understand America's literature. You really have to have some basis of what it means, and the origins of this.
KOPP: Georgia lawmakers are about to pass a bill to enable students to catch up on their Bible study. The measure would provide state funding for an optional high school course on the history and culture depicted in the scriptures. One semester, students would learn about the Old Testament. They would study the New Testament the next semester. School officials would recommend a version of the Bible to service the primary textbook, but students could choose another version.
Senate Republican leader Tommy Williams considers himself a religious man, but he says the class would be strictly academic.
Senator TOMMY WILLIAMS (Republican, Georgia): You know, this would not be a course like would be taught in a Sunday school class. This is strictly history and literature, not for indoctrinational purposes.
KOPP: The measure pleases many Christian conservatives who make up a powerful voting block in Georgia. Christian Coalition state chair Sadie Fields says that bill supporters have earned positive marks on her group's political scorecard. She says they're helping to fix what she sees as a deeply rooted problem.
Ms. SADIE FIELDS (State Chair, Georgia Christian Coalition): Generally speaking, our culture has denigrated faith to such a degree that there are a lot of young people out there that have never had exposure to scripture or to the Bible, and this will be a wonderful opportunity. And again, it's an elective course. Nobody's being coerced or forced to take it.
KOPP: But some school officials say the course won't be easy to teach. In Barrow County, where officials have fought to keep the Ten Commandments in their Courthouse, school superintendent Ron Saunders says he's not sure it should be studied in his school.
Mr. RON SAUNDERS (School superintendent, Barrow County Georgia): I go to church and I take Sunday school classes, and that type of thing, so I wonder why they can't rely on the churches to teach that.
KOPP: Saunders says teachers will need specialized training, which isn't spelled out in the bill.
Maggie Garrett is legislative counsel for the ACLU of Georgia. Without adequate preparation, Garrett says, teachers may accidentally cross the line between teaching the Bible and preaching their religious beliefs.
Ms. MAGGIE GARRETT (Attorney, Georgia ACLU): In the past, when you look at some of the cases that have come up in court, a lot of it has been, perhaps a, they design the class so that it would be objective, and then when the teacher got in there, it was actually a lot of proselytizing, and more like a Sunday school class.
KOPP: State officials usually do not offer teacher training in elective courses, although they could make an exception. But Education Department spokesman Dana Tofig says, teachers know they must abide by the U.S. constitution.
Mr. DANA TOFIG (Georgia Education Department spokesman): Is it a delicate balance? It can be sometimes. But the vast majority of teachers walk that balance very successfully. And we wouldn't anticipate that would be any more of an issue in this class than it would be in the teaching of any other class.
KOPP: Tofig says the legislation could be a big to-do about nothing.
Of the 1.5 million public school students in Georgia, he says, only 800 have chosen to take a comparative religion course this year. There may not be a big demand for a Bible study class in high school. But if the bill becomes law, students would have that choice, beginning in 2007.
For NPR News, I'm Emily Kopp in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.