Steve J. Smith wants the 671 high school students in Bleckley County, Georgia, to know the Bible.
As a Southern Baptist pastor, Smith believes Scripture has the power to transform their lives and ultimately lead them to salvation. As superintendent of the county school district, he thinks a basic knowledge of the Christian text helps them understand history, literature, and art.
But when the Georgia state legislature passed a Bible literacy bill in March, authorizing public schools to teach the Bible, Smith shrugged. “My sense is it was a solution in search of a problem, to be quite honest,” he said.
Legislatures across the country have been considering laws that would accomplish one of the long-talked about goals of Christian conservatives—putting the Bible back in schools. Kentucky passed a Bible literacy bill in 2017, approving elective courses on “the historical impact and literary style” of the Bible. Three states looked at similar laws in 2018. Six more considered them in 2019.
After President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the legislation in January, Georgia proposed, passed, and signed its own Bible class bill into law.
There was something odd about this political victory, though. Georgia public schools already had Bible literacy classes. The state had approved them in 2006.
Back then, Georgia’s Bible literacy bill passed with overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and Georgia became the first state since a controversial 1963 Supreme Court ruling to say that the Bible could be taught in public schools.
The 2006 law authorized two electives classes: Literature and History of the Old Testament Era and Literature and History of the New Testament Era. The 2019 bill says Bible literacy courses can also examine the Scripture’s influence on “customs, morals, values, and culture.”
It may have been easy to forget about the earlier Bible class options since in the intervening 13 years, only a few schools actually offered them.
Bible bills might pass as political victories, but in Georgia at least they turn out to be pretty disconnected from day-to-day life in public schools. While the laws permit Bible literacy classes, they do not mandate them. Georgia Department of Education statistics show that in the 2018–2019 school year, 163 of the state’s 181 school districts did not offer Bible classes.
Most schools prioritize the core curricula evaluated on state tests and don’t have the staffing—or high enough levels of student interest—to teach Bible electives.
In Clayton County outside Atlanta, “the district has never offered the course and doesn’t teach the course,” said spokesman Charles White. In Gordon County in northwest Georgia, there was a Bible class right after the 2006 law passed, but none since 2008. “When the recession hit,” said Beth Herod, the district’s curriculum director, “we had to make a lot of cuts.”
The Bible Literacy Project, an evangelical-led advocacy group that publishes curricula for teaching the Bible, claims 80 percent of Americans favor academic Bible classes in public schools. “You’ve got to teach it in English literature,” said Chuck Stetson, chairman of the project. “You need it to understand Melville and Milton and Hemingway and Toni Morrison.”
Stetson lobbied for Georgia’s Bible literacy bill in 2006. Since the law passed, though, the Bible Literacy Project has sold its curriculum to only 10 percent of school districts in the state. Stetson estimates the classes were taught two or three times each, before interest flagged, or a teacher moved, or something else happened to cause schools to drop the course.
Last year, only 740 of over a half-million high school students in Georgia enrolled in the Literature and History of the Old Testament Era, or Literature and History of the New Testament Era, according to education department records. That’s just 0.14 percent.
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Source: Christianity Today