Key Takeaways

  • *Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction recently issued a directive requiring the incorporation of the Bible into curriculums.
  • *The action followed approval of a Louisiana law requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in all public school classrooms.
  • *In defense of the move, the Oklahoma education chief says the idea of separating church and state is a “myth” and he is confident the mandate will hold up to legal scrutiny.

Oklahoma’s top education official says “a lot of the inspiration” for his order requiring public schools to integrate the Bible into classroom instruction came from the former president and soon-to-be official GOP nominee for the White House, Donald Trump.

Ryan Walters, a Republican elected Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction in 2022, issued a memorandum in late June requiring that schools in the state incorporate the Bible “as an instructional support into the curriculum” across grades five through 12. The directive came after Louisiana last month enacted a law requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom.

Walters’ move marks the latest chapter in a long-standing American debate over the relationship between religion and public schools. It also may be met with a legal challenge: The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example – a nonprofit that aims to promote “the constitutional principle of separation between state and church” – vowed “to take action to stop” the new rule in Oklahoma, which ranks No. 49 in the education category of U.S. News most recent Best States analysis.

But Walters says he feels “very comfortable” should a legal battle ensue. The 39-year-old – who has seen his profile grow amid the numerous culture wars taking place within the world of education – previously faced criticism for comments tied to the Tulsa Race Massacre and has also backed a proposal for a minute of silence for prayer or reflection in schools, along with an effort recently halted by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to establish the nation’s first publicly funded religious charter school.

“People can be offended. People can be bothered. But what they can’t do is they can’t rewrite history,” Walters says in defense of his Bible-related move.

Walters spoke with U.S. News recently about his rationale behind the mandate and whether he thinks it would hold up against possible legal challenges. Questions and answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you issue this directive and why do you feel it’s important for Oklahoma public schools?

What we’ve seen is the Bible has been under attack from the teachers unions, the radical left, (President) Joe Biden to drive it out of the classroom. And when you look at American history, it’s absolutely essential that our kids understand the role that the Bible played. And so we had a task force put together to help us analyze our history standards and they said, “Listen, we think it’s really clear that we need to do a better job of teaching the Bible’s role in American history and, frankly, Western civilization history.”

So we have decided that we’re going to make sure that happens by this requirement to have the Bible included in the curriculum and all classrooms. We’re very proud to be the first state to do that, and we’re proud to be leading the effort to put the Bible back in schools.

I was going to ask if you were inspired by Louisiana’s similar measure that came out recently, but you mentioned the task force so I guess this has been in the works for a while. But how did you view the move by Louisiana?

I very much support what Louisiana is doing. I would tell you though, frankly, a lot of our inspiration came from President Trump. President Trump has been very supportive. As a matter of fact, he tweeted out last week supporting the work that I’m doing and the state’s doing here in Oklahoma on education. But he’s put justices on the Supreme Court who are originalists. And so this gives us the opportunity to understand that they are going to view this in the context in which the Constitution was written. We feel great legally about it and then we also feel very great about the support from President Trump to make sure that our kids understand our history so that we can continue to move the country in the right direction.

How will you ensure that public schools will comply? 

We’re going to be giving more guidance in the next few weeks. This is a part of our academic standards review. We do this every four years. What we do is we look at our standards: What do we need to improve upon? What do we need to add to them? And so this is going to be part of our announcements in the next two or three weeks. There is going to be more guidance that’ll be given in the standards as to how to teach the Bible’s impact in American history. So teachers will be given more of a directive of where it falls in their standards on how to teach it.

The expectation and the requirement is that they teach them. Teachers can’t pick and choose which of our standards they teach. So this will absolutely be part of the required standards that they will be teaching our kids in the classroom.

How do you respond to the critics who say this is a violation of religious freedom or a violation of the separation of church and state?

Well, first of all, the separation of church and state is a myth. What we’ve seen is the left have taken a phrase from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, and it creeped its way into a (Supreme Court) ruling in the 1940s and came back in the 1960s. That is not in the Constitution. That is that is not the way the left uses it today – anything like what the founders set up in our Constitution.

(Editor’s note: The First Amendment’s establishment clause is often considered to require the separation of church and state.)

But the reality is, when we’re talking about the Bible in the classroom, we are talking about its historical context in American history. So what role did it play? When Thomas Jefferson references that we’re endowed by our Creator, why did he say that? Where did that come from? What were his beliefs? When Martin Luther King Jr. writes a letter from a Birmingham jail, references multiple Bible stories to support the civil rights movement – OK, well, why is he doing that? What are those stories? What is their application to the work he was doing?

One more would be the Pilgrims, the Mayflower Compact – what religious persecution were they fleeing? What did they believe, and why did they believe that? So just a few examples there of the kind of context our kids need so they have a better understanding of our country, they have a better understanding of where we’ve come from. And I believe that a better understanding of American history and the American founding will help our students have a better understanding of where the country should go.

For the students and the parents who aren’t Christians and aren’t comfortable learning this in public schools, what would you say to them?

First of all, kids of all backgrounds are all welcome in our schools, and we want them all to be successful. When I hear folks say that they’re offended, or they’re bothered by it or whatever else – look, people can be offended. People can be bothered. But what they can’t do is they can’t rewrite history. So when we’re talking about these kinds of left-wing folks that want to say, “Well, we don’t like it, so we don’t want it mentioned.” Well, I’m sorry, that is American history, so that will be included. It’s essential. Frankly, it’s academic malpractice not to have the Bible in your study of American history, not to have that understanding of its context historically.

Do you personally believe that there are some religious freedom issues at stake here with this policy?

For 10 years, I was a history teacher. I was a public school history teacher. I look at this as a history teacher who spent over a decade in the classroom trying to help kids understand American history, world history so that they can utilize that understanding to better themselves as individuals, but also to become better citizens.

I don’t see any issue here (for) parents of different faith backgrounds because this is the history of the United States of America. Feelings do not trump facts. Feelings do not negate the facts of history. So we’re not going to rewrite our history because somebody might be offended.

Are you anticipating legal challenges to this?

I think it’s possible. I don’t know of anything yet. But look, I feel very strong, very comfortable in a legal battle. We feel very, very legally sound. We believe that with the Supreme Court that President Trump has appointed, they will look at this in an originalist’s viewpoint, which is going to be very supportive of this. Without a majority of left-wing activists on the court, we feel very, very good about it, if it makes it that far.

But if groups want to sue us, if they want to take us that way, we will gladly support this position. It’s very legally sound and also, it’s going to be very helpful to our kids.

So you’re confident that this directive can pass legal and constitutional muster?

Absolutely. I’ll point you to a few things. No. 1, we have state law that have approved standards that say our classes are to understand the role religion played in American history. What we’re doing is beefing that up to make sure kids understand what we mean by that and teachers understand how you teach that. So we already have the state statute to really support that. No. 2, we have plenty of historical examples to point to. (There are) primary source-type documents of our history, of mentions of God, mentions of the Bible that we’ll be pointing to. And No. 3, you just look at the courts and the American legal system. Until the 1960s, this was not controversial. This was readily available in our schools. History lessons would have sounded and looked like that. But it’s until the court took a radical left turn (and) they concocted the myth of separation of church and state that you really saw this weaponization against the Bible in our schools. So we feel very confident that those historical precedents are on our side.

Anything else you think readers should know about this?

I know I talked a little bit about this earlier. But you asked about the inspiration for it and things like that. Look, President Trump has absolutely made this the path that can be followed by states, by giving that support publicly and then by putting originalists on the Supreme Court. That’s what is allowing us to do this, and upon his reelection this November, it will further empower us to move the ball even further in states across the country to make sure our kids understand the role the Bible played in American history.

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