Teaching Bible in schools sparks debate in Senate hearing

Friday, April 19, 2019

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — A bill that would allow school districts in Missouri to offer electives that teach the Bible received robust opposition during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

House Bill 267, sponsored by Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, seeks to clarify the current statute that Baker says allows religious texts to be used only as a reference text or as part of instruction.

Baker wants the law to allow an elective to be based on the Bible and its influence on law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture.

Opponents were concerned that the bill is unconstitutional and that it excludes many religious texts.

Baker said the basis of the bill is the idea that the Bible is essential to the understanding of how our society works and “why it is dramatically different than others.” He said a basic understanding of Bible literacy, or at least the option to pursue it, is necessary to address what he sees as a significant portion of missing knowledge of historical and societal context through a “documented history of man’s beginnings.”

“Trying to understand Western civilization without reading the Bible is like trying to understand American history without reading the Constitution,” Baker said.

Opponents included lawyers, educators and pastors — most of whom identified themselves as practicing Christians.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, was among opponents who worry about the constitutionality of the bill. She said she worries that it violates the separation of church and state and excludes other religious texts.

The bill references only the influence of Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.

“In some ways, this is giving preferential treatment,” Arthur said.

Baker said the goal is to teach the Bible “specifically from a literary or historical perspective.” He said other religions would not have the same historical context as the Bible.

Carol McEntyre, pastor at Columbia’s First Baptist Church, agreed with supporters that the public needs more biblical literacy. But, she argued, it’s a job for parents and the churches, not the state.

McEntyre, a self-identified Bible-lover, worried about who gets to decide which version of the Bible schools teach and how one could teach biblical content without “getting into the weeds about how to interpret the Bible.”

“Someday, my daughter is going to ask me, ‘Is that real? Did that really happen?’” McEntyre said. “And I look forward to teaching her about the complexities of biblical interpretation at that moment. But I want to be the one to talk to my daughter about that — not the state.”

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, said he wouldn’t object to schools offering electives about other sacred books, but he doesn’t think any other text has the “cultural significance” of the Bible.

The ACLU’s legislative director, Sarah Baker, echoed the organization’s stance against similar legislation regarding Bible instruction in school.

“This violates very clearly the establishment clause of the constitution,” Baker said.