In a stark reversal of political fortune, Democratic legislators attempting to seize the pro-religion spotlight in Georgia last month have found themselves unexpectedly converted into backers of a Republican bill to teach the Bible in public schools.
The bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by the legislature and is expected to be signed by Republican Governor Sonny Purdue later this month, would make Georgia the first state in the nation to require that the Bible itself be used as the core text in classes on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The measure supplanted a proposal, introduced in January by three Democratic state senators, that would have instructed the Georgia Department of Education to develop a state-funded elective course on the Bible and approve a textbook to be used in the class.
The partisan tussle has shone a spotlight on the increasing efforts of Democrats to appeal to Christian conservatives. This is particularly the case in Georgia, where evangelical and born-again Christians make up 41% of the electorate and Democratic control has eroded steadily over the past four decades, culminating with Republicans taking control of Georgia’s state legislature in 2004.
“The Democrats were trying to outflank the Republicans and burnish their credentials as pro-religion, while not offending church-state separatists,” wrote Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Rather than let the Democrats take away their issue, the Republicans responded with their own version of the bill.”
Senator Doug Stoner, one of the co-sponsors of the original Democratic bill that was rejected, defended his decision, along with nearly every other Democrat in the state Senate, to vote for the Republican-backed measure — despite the fact that he shared concerns about its constitutionality.
“We weren’t going to kill the bill, because we had some debatable issues, in a sense, that will eventually have to be decided by the courts,” said Stoner, whose suburban Atlanta district is also home to conservative former congressmen Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr. “Unfortunately, we pass a lot of things that I can guarantee you are unconstitutional, and we don’t blink an eye when we do it, either, to be very honest.”
Stoner said that even though it was the Republican version of the bill that passed, he considered the overall turn of events to be a political win for Democrats.
“I can tell you that us proposing this has had a major impact in the state on peoples’ perspectives on Democrats,” Stoner said. “The leading papers everywhere in the state were saying, ‘Senate Democrats Introduce Academic Study of the Bible,’ and that has stuck.” He added, “To be very honest with you, most folks are very busy with their lives and don’t get into the finer details of which bill is which.”
Georgia is well known as a center of religious conservatism: Last year, a federal judge ordered one of the state’s school districts to remove from science textbooks stickers that called evolution into question. But the campaign to offer some sort of Bible-related courses in public schools has been gaining ground around the country. Next year, school districts in 14 states will offer courses based on a new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” which was published in September by the nonprofit group The Bible Literacy Project. Currently, 8% of public school students have access to a course in which the Bible is part of the curriculum, according to a Gallup Poll conducted last year for the organization.
The Democrats’ capitulation in Georgia has raised questions for Jewish groups that have adopted the strategy of backing a relatively moderate, pluralistic textbook on the Bible with the hope of heading off the more conservative initiatives of right-wing activists.
The U.S. Supreme Court barred devotional teaching in public schools in 1963, but ruled that study of the Bible for its “literary and historic qualities” is constitutionally permissible if “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
Georgia’s Senate Bill 79, which was approved by the state senate in its final version on March 27 in a 45-2 vote, requires the State Board of Education to adopt, by February 2007, curricula for state-funded elective high school courses in “The History and Literature of the Old Testament Era” and “The History and Literature of the New Testament Era,” with the Bible itself as the core textbook. The Georgia House of Representatives previously approved the bill by a vote of 151-7. According to Georgia law, the governor has 40 days to veto a bill, after which time it automatically goes into effect.
The purpose of the new courses, according to the bill, is “to accommodate the rights and desires of those teachers and students who wish to teach and study the Old and New Testaments.” Local school systems would decide whether to offer the classes.
The bill specifies that local school boards may recommend the use of a given biblical translation, but teachers and students would be permitted to choose other versions.
Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, a Republican, told the Agape Press that he had opposed the original bill introduced by the Democrats because in requiring the Department of Education to approve a textbook, it would likely have allowed schools to use a newly published book with a “left-wing view of the Bible.”
Stoner said that he supported the use of “The Bible and Its Influence,” which was reviewed by a wide range of Christian and Jewish groups and has garnered endorsements from the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, two organizations that advocate maintaining a strict separation of church and state.
It is competing with a more widely used book, published by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which has been assailed by constitutional experts as advocating Christian fundamentalism. In 1998, a federal court in Florida ruled that parts of the book violated the separation of church and state.
According to Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, it is not unconstitutional to require the Bible rather than a textbook as the main source material for the course. But she said that doing so would likely make it more difficult for teachers to be sure they are staying within the First Amendment.
“It’s really asking a lot of teachers,” Garrett said. They “are going to be expected to be scholars on the Bible in teaching these classes, but also scholars on the Constitution.”
Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, voiced more alarm, predicting that “as a practical matter, school districts in Georgia are going to view this as a green light for sectarian teaching — wink, wink — even though the bill says not.” Stern said that a provision of the bill stipulating that the course “not include teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions” implies that a literalist reading of the Bible must be taught, which would accord with Christian fundamentalism. This, he said, comes “perilously close” to being unconstitutional, and “may in fact be over the line.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said he favored “a two-pronged approach” that included opposition to the proliferation of Bible courses in general, as well as support for guidelines once a decision has been made to teach the course.
Stern, who served as a content editor for the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook, said that he did not regret his decision to participate in the development of a public school course on the Bible. He argued that, in the past, when the Jewish community held the line against any religious content at all in the public schools, it had simply forfeited any chance for input.
“The Supreme Court has said, what, three times, four times, that you can teach the Bible and an education is incomplete without it,” Stern said.
So an absolutist argument “will win in Ann Arbor and it will win in Madison, Wis., and Cambridge, Mass.,” but “nowhere else,” Stern said. “By advocating for a compromise,” he added, “I think we can get everything that we need to protect the interests we care about and not hurt ourselves politically.”