Bible classes don’t belong in Missouri’s public high schools

Associated Press file photo

If some Republican lawmakers in Missouri get their way, public high schools could teach elective classes on the Bible.

A House bill would require state education officials to develop learning standards and curriculum guidelines for teaching the Old and New Testaments. The legislation passed out of the House Special Committee on Student Accountability by an 8-2 vote this week.

But the unnecessary measure could put the state on legally precarious footing by clearing the way for Bible courses that appear to promote one religion over all others.

Missouri schools already have the right to use religious books in literature and history classes as long as they’re not used in a manner that violates the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits government from favoring any religion. The Bible can be used as reference material.

But teaching a class centered only on the Bible in public schools raises new and avoidable constitutional and legal questions. Lawmakers should reject the proposal.

Conservative education activists have argued that students lack knowledge of the Bible. Other supporters like the idea of the class as an elective.

“The Bible is simply a part of the fabric of life,” Republican state Rep. Ben Baker, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee this week.

Baker, who is a newly-elected legislator from Neosho, a minster and the dean of students at Ozark Bible Institute and College in southwestern Missouri, has acknowledged that his proposal would likely spark controversy.

He was right.

The ACLU correctly argues that every student, regardless of their faith, should feel safe and welcome in public schools.

“It would be nearly impossible to teach a class that would not violate a student’s First Amendment rights,” said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri.

Allowing taxpayer-funded religion classes — and teaching a course centered on the Bible amounts to a religion class — raises troubling questions about the separation of church and state.

“If schools want to teach the history of religion, why do we need a law to allow them to do that?” said Allan Markley, superintendent of Raytown Schools.

A similar bill was rejected in North Dakota on constitutional grounds. Questions still swirl about the legality of Kentucky’s Bibles in schools plan, and similar legislation in West Virginia has led to lawsuits.

There’s no good reason to open the door to similar protracted legal fights in Missouri.

“I get the purpose of the bill,” said State Rep. Matt Sain, a Democrat from Kansas City. “My problem is what if you get a teacher that is not trained in the lessons of the Bible? You open up potential litigation for school districts and the state.”

There are plenty of ways for schools to legally teach religion to students — and to give them a broad overview of religious history and multiple religious denominations. But offering Bible courses in Missouri public schools is an unneeded solution that could create a whole new batch of problems.