(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.
Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”
Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional.
But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Consider Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:
"It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the 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 religious 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 consistent with the First Amendment."
If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?
The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.
Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events and assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.
And it says the Bible is a “prerequisite” to “contemporary society and culture.”
In a recent interview, state Rep. D.J. Johnson, the architect of the bill, gives us a better sense of what HB 128 means when he said: “(The Bible) really did set the foundation that our Founding Fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. … All those came from principles in the Bible.”
While the Bible has certainly played a role in the shaping of American history and culture, the degree to which it has informed the founding documents of the United States is a much-debated topic among historians.
In April, during the debate over HB 128 in the state House, Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington said, “This country — whether some people want to believe it or not — wasn’t founded as a Muslim nation, wasn’t founded as a Hindu nation, wasn’t founded as a Hare Krishna nation. It was founded as a Christian nation.”
He added: “It’s been said on the floor today that teaching the Bible ain’t going to get it done. Well, let me tell you what didn’t get it done: Kicking God out of school, kicking the Bible out of school, kicking prayer out of school.”
And then there is Dan Johnson. In addition to representing Kentucky’s House District 49 he is a bishop in the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville. In his 2016 campaign he came under fire for defending Southern secession and “white pride.” He also posted a picture on Facebook of Barack Obama as an ape.
When confronted about the picture Johnson said, “It wasn’t meant to be racist. I can tell you that. My history’s good there. I can see how people would be offended in that. I wasn’t trying to offend anybody, but I think Facebook’s entertaining.”
In the end, it appears HB 128 is a subtle and shrewd attempt by the Kentucky government to promote a Christian nationalist agenda without violating Abington v. Schempp.
If it couldn't bring Christianity and the Bible back into the schools in an overt pre-1963 way, it could at least bring it into the curriculum under the guise of history and social studies.
Watchdog groups are keeping a close eye on how the bill will be implemented in Kentucky schools.
Kate Miller of the Kentucky ACLU put it best: “A Bible literacy bill that, on its face, may not appear to be unconstitutional, could in fact become unconstitutional in its implementation.”
Miller and other critics should make sure the Bible is not being used in this new class for advancing an exclusive Christian message. But they should also keep an eye on how the Bible is being used to teach civics and history in Kentucky schools.
It’s important to remember that the ultimate implementation of HB 128 rests with the educators who will be teaching this Bible course. (We are only talking about an elective course, so I imagine only a small group of students will take it.)
Kentucky teachers have the responsibility to think with their students about all the ways the Bible has influenced, and has not influenced, American society and culture.
(John Fea teaches history at Messiah College. He is the author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction,” and blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com)