Arizona’s legislators want Bibles in the classroom, but state teachers could find themselves punished if they bring other texts into public and charter schools.
Teachers could have their licenses revoked if they bring any supplemental books into the classroom that aren’t pre-approved by the district and posted on a website for parental view.
Many teachers say these bills are an intrusion into the classroom where local principals and school boards should keep control.
But many legislators ended up arguing the Bible elective was necessary to address lower standards and morals in the public school system.
Terri Proud, R-Tucson, primary sponsor of H.B. 2563 touted the Bible’s academic significance as a basis Western literature. The debate ultimately boiled down to a philosophical view on the text itself.
“In our own society we’ve kind of lost American culture,” Proud said. “We need to go back to our heritage and how it’s influenced so much in our culture.”
Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, agreed.
“We have lost somewhere along the line morality,” Crandell said as he explained his vote in committee. The elective would provide “the opportunity for those communities that would like to take (the Bible) on to use as a tool to get back to some of the basics they think are important.”
Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, agreed. He is concerned that the bill might open a “Pandora’s Box” for teachers because other religious texts will probably have to be given equal rights in the classroom, he said.
“I believe we have lost a part of our soul by taking religion out of our classrooms,” Fillmore said.
These bills could step on constitutional rights, opponents argue.
Currently, Arizona law requires the school board to “exclude from school libraries all books, publications and papers of a sectarian, partisan or denominational character,” state statute says. But if the bill were to pass, an exception would be included for the Bible as well as any materials for this elective course.
Disciplinary action over religious preaching in the classroom would also be softened—from the outright revocation of a teaching license, to providing teachers immunity from liability as long as they teach the class “in good faith.”
That leaves other faiths and those without faiths unfairly excluded, said Serah Blain with the Secular Coalition for Arizona.
“Because the course specifically teaches only the Christian Bible and other sectarian partisan or denominational materials continue under the Arizona Revised Statutes to be excluded from public schools, the existence of the course itself represents a bias against religious minorities and nonbelievers, whose traditions have also contributed to and continue to contribute to western culture,” Blain said.
Anjali Abraham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona agreed that introduction of the Bible as a state-sanctioned religious text to the exclusion of others was a serious violation of constitutional rights.
“In designing a curriculum to familiarize students with recorded history of the bible, schools are going to have to decide what counts as recorded history and our concern is that invariably means embracing a particular religious viewpoint or a couple of religious viewpoints and then as a consequence rejecting others and that’s a real First Amendment problem,” Abraham said.
Abraham added that the lenient language for chastising preachy teachers as well as the establishment of a specific Bible course to the exclusion of other texts was problematic.
“Our concern in setting up a separate course independently dedicated to Bible study, there’s the potential to go from neutral discussion to religious instruction. And our feeling is that the shaping of a child’s religious and moral views is really the responsibility of the parents and family, not any particular governmental body,” Abraham said.
But Proud stressed the Bible was just more important to Western culture than other texts.
“Had the Muslim community or the Buddhist community or whatever, had they influenced our society as much as this book has, then that’s what I would be passing right now. But that hasn’t been the biggest influence,” Proud said.
Regardless of the legislative opinion on necessity for the course, the actual course requirements—that the history, contents, influence, and literary style and structure of the old and new testament be taught in one elective—is simply “an absurd curriculum,” said Prof. John Ulreich, who has taught English at the University of Arizona for 41 years. He teaches two courses on the Old and New Testaments—a semester each.
“The person who writes this doesn’t know anything about the subject,” Ulreich said. “We should not allow legislatures to prescribe curricula.”
Ulreich, who said he’s absolutely in support of the teaching of the Bible to students before they get to college, said the way the bill is written will accomplish nothing.
“Studying it, learning it, is a good thing, I’m all for it,” Ulreich said. “Any school that wants to undertake that challenge I would be glad to advise. But what the legislature is proposing, it’s just not workable. It’s more like cramming stuff into their heads.”
The claim that teaching the Bible would improve morality was also a moot point, he argued.
“The Bible teaches you whatever you want to learn. You want to learn that men should dominate women? You can find it in the Bible. You want to believe that god hates gay people? You can find it in the Bible. You can also find places in both testaments that tell us that the fundamental spiritual and moral obligations are to love God and love our neighbors,” Ulreich said. “The Bible can be inspiring but it offers rich examples of very bad behavior. People who believe that the bible is all good for you, just haven’t really read the Bible.”
Ulreich added that in a time when teachers are already financially strapped, he doubts that a school could come up with the appropriate training to teach a course like this—especially when other electives that dealt with controversial material, like ethnic studies, were so easily obliterated by angry parents.
“High school administrators these days are very timid,” Ulreich said. “They’re going to be attacked by legislators who are hostile to the very idea of education. They’re not going to want to mess with this thing.”
But legislators are trying to keep other speech out of the classroom, and threaten revocation of licenses for teachers engaged in “uni-partisan activities” in the classroom, using FCC-defined obscene language, and bringing in books not pre-approved by the school board.
Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, introduced the bills relating to partisan doctrine and pre-approval of books as part of a package of legislation aimed at quashing “political indoctrination in the classroom, by specifically a lot of the La Raza teachers,” Klein said when these bills were introduced in committee, referring to recent controversy the now-defunct ethnic studies program at Tucson High.
S.B. 1202, for example, would prohibit teachers from using any “partisan doctrine” or “uni-partisan activities” in the classroom or during extracurricular activities. The initially prohibited “partisan books” entirely, but was later watered down to “using partisan doctrine.”
If an individual teacher is found in violation of the law, the district itself could lose up to 10 percent per month of state aid until the school board is found to be in compliance, something that left the Arizona School Boards Association in opposition.
Janice Palmer, an ASBA lobbyist, said without a definition of what “partisan” and “uni-partisan” are, and with up to 10 percent of funding being held hostage, there could be serious impact to schools and teachers.
Sen. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, was also alarmed by the bill’s language.
“I think that the language that we have here is so broad you’re going to stifle the educational environment and stifle the kid’s ability to learn,” Lujan said. “As it is now, it really could send a chilling effect to teachers in the classroom who are teaching whatever subject if their livelihood is going to be put in jeopardy for being deemed for teaching partisan activity.”
Democratic senators argued all these restrictions characterize a legislative intrusion into the classroom where issues should be left to local control—especially in the case of teacher use of obscenities.
“Let it be dealt with on a local school district level,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. “I don’t think this is appropriate for the legislature.”
Sen. Lori Klein’s bills, S.B. 1202, S.B. 1203, and S.B. 1205 await approval from the full senate. The Bible elective class bill, H.B. 2563, has passed the full house and awaits a hearing in the senate.
Mejdrich is a senior at the University of Arizona and is the Bolles Fellow this semester covering the Legislature. The fellowship was named to honor former Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles who was assassinated in the line of duty.