What just happened?

On Monday, President Trump posted on Twitter his support for Bible literacy classes, saying, “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”

His tweet came soon after a segment on Fox & Friends in which North Dakota State Representative Aaron McWilliams explained why he’s pushing the legislation in his state.

What are Bible literacy classes?

The Bible literacy classes under discussion are public school elective courses that teach the books of the Bible from the perspective of history and literature.

Which states are introducing legislation for Bible literacy classes?

Bible literacy bills are currently being introduced in six states: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, Virginia, and Florida. Similar bills were considered in 2018 but failed to pass in Alabama, Iowa, and West Virginia.

Such classes are already legally recognized in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.

Why are so many states now presenting such legislation?

The Republican Party included promotion of Bible literacy classes in their 2016 party platform:

A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools.

The legislation also appears to have been part of a 2015 initiative called “Project Blitz” whose purpose is to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.” Project Blitz is sponsored by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), National Legal Foundation, and WallBuilders.

A key component of Project Blitz is the promotion of model legislation, called the the Bible Literacy Act, that can be introduced by state legislatures. The Bible Literacy Act is an “act relating to public school elective courses in the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments eras.” The legislation allows school districts to offer to students in grades nine or above an elective course in the history and literature of the Old Testament era and an elective course in the history and literature of the New Testament era.

What is taught in Bible literacy classes in public schools?

The Bible Literacy Act model legislation offers some of the common reasons given for the classes. The courses are intended to familiarize students with:

• the contents, literary style, and structure of the Old or New Testament;
• the customs, cultures, and religions of the peoples and societies recorded in the Old or New Testament;
• the history and geography of the times and places referred to in the Old or New Testament;
• the influence of the Old or New Testament on law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values, and culture.
• the methods and tools of writing during the period when the Old or New Testament was written and the means by which books were preserved;
• the languages in which the Old or New Testament book was written; and
• the historical and cultural events that led to the translation of the Old or New Testament book into English.

Is it legal to teach the Bible in public schools?

Yes, under certain conditions. In the 1963 case School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits public schools from sponsoring devotional Bible readings and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer. However, the Court found that First Amendment does not prohibit the teaching of the Bible as part of a curriculum of history and literature. In the majority decision the Court wrote:

In addition, it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.