When Texas lawmakers publicly vetted a bill last week that would mandate Bible classes in the state’s public schools, one group was conspicuously absent: Jewish parents and community leaders, who were celebrating the first day of Passover.
On April 3, the Texas House Public Education Committee met to consider a controversial measure that would require the state’s nearly 1,700 public high schools to offer courses on the Bible, if 15 or more students enroll. Following a protest from the Anti-Defamation League over the timing of the hearing, the committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Rob Eissler, pushed back a vote on the bill until April 12, allowing Jewish groups to testify.
Despite the quick resolution of the Passover snafu, Jewish groups in Texas might have reason to worry about the broader motivations behind the Bible bill: The measure’s author, Rep. Warren Chisum, a Republican who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee and is well known for his fundamentalist views, set off a firestorm in February when he circulated a memo that called evolutionary theory an “alternate ‘creation scenario’ of the Pharisee Religion” and claimed that teaching evolution is unconstitutional.
Chisum subsequently apologized and disavowed the memo, which was written by Republican Georgia State House Rep. Ben Bridges. Chisum said he had not reviewed the memo carefully before sending it out, and that he did not agree with it.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may teach about the Bible in a secular context for its historical, cultural or literary value, but may not offer sectarian religious instruction. As Bible curricula have proliferated across the country in recent years, church-state activists in Texas and elsewhere have argued that schools often offer the courses without appropriate safeguards and guidelines for teacher training or curriculum development.
A recent study conducted by Mark Chancey, an assistant professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, found that of 25 Texas school districts that voluntarily offered courses on the Bible during the 2005-06 school year, only three complied with constitutional mandates. According to the study, one district’s course included a PowerPoint presentation titled “God’s Roadway for Your Life,” with a slide that proclaimed, “Jesus Christ is the one and only way.”
Critics of the Texas Bible bill include Rabbi Neal Katz, who heads Reform Congregation Beth El in Tyler, a small city in the state’s northeast corner.
“It’s not an issue of whether [teaching about the] Bible is acceptable,” Katz said. “The issue is how it’s taught and how it’s implemented, and we don’t have a very good track record of it here.”