When President Trump tweeted his praise for states looking to authorize Bible literacy courses in public schools, it wasn't exactly a surprise that Florida would be in the mix, given its history. The state — along with Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, Virginia and West Virginia — has a bill pending (HB 195) in the Legislature that would require high schools to offer an elective course on the Bible and religion.
An existing state law, approved in 2002, already gives school districts the option of providing courses that include the "objective study" of the Bible. The proposed law would require school districts to make those courses available, and students could decide whether to enroll.
The rationale for co-sponsor Rep. Brad Drake, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, is clear.
"A study of a book of creation by its creator is absolutely essential," Drake said, suggesting the lessons of kindness and tolerance might help reduce other state problems, such as crime.
"So why not?" he asked. "It's the book that prepares us for eternity, and there's no other book that does that."
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His explanation, though, illustrates for critics exactly why they oppose the measure. Since Florida schools already can add Bible courses, they reason, something larger must be afoot.
"There's no question this bill is introduced with the goal of putting God in our schools," said Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
She called the legislation, and other bills like it, unconstitutional and divisive. The first 16 words of the First Amendment make the illegality clear, she argued.
"There's an explicit strategy to pass an incremental set of bills that start with more passable ones that sound neutral, but they aren't," Laser said. She cited as examples the current Bible literacy proposal and last year's passage of a law that requires all public schools in Florida to post the words "In God We Trust" in a prominent place on campus.
"They sound innocuous," she continued. "But Project Blitz makes it clear they're the first step in a design to codify a Christian America."
Project Blitz is an initiative of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation to "protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square."
Steve Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation, has served as senior legal advisor to the foundation and its effort. He readily acknowledged the organizations' attempts to have states adopt their model legislation on the national motto ("In God we trust"), the Bible and other related topics.
He rejected, though, any suggestion that what they're doing is aimed at creating a state religion.
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"It's not about a secret way to evangelize," Fitschen said, noting students already have opportunities to do so through Bible clubs and other activities allowed on campuses. "We are not advocating using the mechanism of the state schools to do what kids can do themselves."
Rather, he said, the groups aim to encourage the understanding and practice of religion, something he argued is permissible within the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment disallows government establishment of a religion, he argued, but expressly supports its practice.
"Encouraging religion is not establishing religion," Fitschen said, referring to the Northwest Ordinance in which Congress brought the territories of today's Midwest into the nation.
In those 18th century documents, Congress stated, "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
The current legislation, Fitschen argued, builds upon that underlying value, while also providing materials — the Bible and scriptures — that would help children understand a key foundation of western civilization.
If the Bible literacy courses are academic and not devotional in nature, and do not encourage or discourage any religious views, they would be allowable, said David Brockman, a non-resident scholar at the Rice University Baker Institute's Religion and Public Policy Program.
Highly mistrustful of consolidating powers of the state and church, with a history of religious persecution in their recent past, the founders were careful to keep religion at a distance from the government, he said. And that's what has been acceptable when it comes to how public schools handle the topic.
"Teach, don't preach. That's a good way to put it," Brockman said.
However, he continued, laws like this one don't always get implemented that way.
Texas adopted its version in 2007, and independent researchers have found the courses have been taught by untrained teachers, sometimes pastors, and were often one-sided in their lessons.
"How are people going to be sure these aren't basically Sunday school courses funded by tax dollars?" Brockman asked, noting that Florida's bill includes no provisions to prepare the teachers and monitor the outcomes.
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat, said he, too, worried about the "slippery slope" this bill could create. He offered more support to the idea of teaching about the diversity of religions rather than focusing on one book.
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"As a Christian myself, I would love to learn about different religions, because it would give me an opportunity to respect my brothers and sisters in a different manner," Jones said. "If we're saying, 'My religion trumps yours,' that causes the divisions we already have."
Drake, the bill's co-sponsor, said he would have no complaint about schools teaching world religions and using their sacred texts.
But "in the world there is one book that is the ultimate authority on mankind. That is the Holy Bible," he said. "I think it should be studied in our schools."
HB 195 has been assigned to three House committees for consideration. The Senate so far does not have a companion bill.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org.