A bill that would require Florida public high schools to offer an elective course on the Old Testament and New Testament began moving through the Florida House on Wednesday, but not without significant concerns raised about its possible unconstitutionality.
Several members of the House PreK-12 Quality subcommittee questioned whether such a proposal could withstand judicial scrutiny, given the religious nature of the subject matter.
They also took issue with the notion that HB 195 would be able to live up to its section title, “An objective study of religion,” as it focuses on just one religion.
“I don’t know how you can have religious neutrality if your course is focused on just one holy book,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who suggested she would be more supportive of the measure if it were to include the texts of other world religions.
Bill sponsor Rep. Kim Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat who last year passed legislation requiring schools to conspicuously post the phrase “In God We Trust,” did not accept any requests to soften the language.
She deemed “unfriendly” an amendment to indemnify school districts from any lawsuits that result from the requirement, which Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, suggested were likely to occur. She rejected any thought of adding the Koran or other titles to the course requirement.
“It’s for the study of the Bible,” Daniels said.
Daniels argued that the measure is about public policy -- the teaching of the “best selling book of all time” and its impact on the world -- and not about worship. She stressed that the wording of the legislation aims to protect students who would take the course from being coerced into believing any religious views.
“This is simply a literacy course,” Daniels said, adding that she would provide a new version at the bill’s next committee stop to align it with a Kentucky law that has been viewed favorably by courts there.
Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola, called the bill “vitally important” for its goal of teaching the historic impact of the Bible on world cultures. More than that, Hill added, “We know that teaching the Bible will bring wisdom, and wisdom is so needed in our public school system.”
For the most part, Daniels worked to steer clear of the religious aspect of the proposal, despite its being in the title. She focused on the idea of the Bible and religion offering perspective on civilizations and cultures, an area that experts have suggested would be the path toward an acceptable course in a public school.
In fact, schools already can offer comparative religion and other such classes, so long as they don’t cross over into preaching. They’re not mandated to do so, though, as this bill would require.
Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition took the same tack in supporting the measure, which is part of a national push. Six states are pursuing similar legislation, which opponents have called a thinly veiled attempt to Christianize the secular public school system.
“We’re on safe ground here, as long as we do it right,” Verdugo told the panel.
Questions remained, though, about how it could be done “right.” Members wanted more information about how the teachers would be selected and trained, and which versions of the Bible would be allowed, among other key points.
Webb wondered if outside experts had been consulted to help devise the proposed curriculum, as had been the case for a civics course bill the committee heard only moments before. “No,” Daniels answered.
Other issues also were unsettled, such as whether charter schools would be subject to the same requirement, and where the money for the materials and training would come from.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said his PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee, which is the bill’s next stop, will tackle such matters. But he made clear his support for the bill, too, reiterating that it would be an elective.
“Nobody is going to be made to take this course,” Latvala said.
Daniels picked up that point as she closed on the bill. It then passed with some bipartisan support.
There is not a Senate companion bill at this point.