Hobby Lobby-ing for Religion in Public Schools

Has God been kicked out of America’s public schools?  The most common answer among religious conservatives is yes.  But a better answer might be that God has been kicked out as a host, but earnestly welcomed in as a guest.

A new Bible curriculum for public schools hopes to reverse that trend.  As we’ve reported, Steve Green, conservative evangelical leader of the Hobby Lobby store chain, has funded a new Bible curriculum for public schools.  A recent study from the Texas Freedom Network insists that Green’s curriculum crosses the line.

Hobby Lobby's Promotional Image for Its New Bible Curriculum

Hobby Lobby’s Promotional Image for Its New Bible Curriculum

The study of the Hobby Lobby Bible curriculum was undertaken by Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University.  Chancey is a religious-studies professor with considerable expertise in the question of religion in public schools.

As Chancey reviews, it is entirely permissible for public school students to read and study the Bible.  The US Supreme Court has encouraged such study.  The problem comes when public schools attempt to teach a certain interpretation of the Bible.  In short, public schools can and should teach students about religion.  But they err when they teach students religion.

Chancey asks if the Hobby-Lobby-funded curriculum, The Book: The Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact, keeps on the constitutional side of this divide.  For several reasons, Chancey concludes that it does not.

First, though Chancey notes this is not conclusive, Steve Green himself has publicly stated his intention to spread his religion.  As Chancey notes, Green makes no secret of his evangelical ambition.

Simply because Green wants to spread his faith, of course, does not mean that this Bible curriculum tries to do so.  But Chancey argues that the Bible curriculum repeatedly insists or implies that a certain evangelical-friendly interpretation of the Bible is correct.  For one thing, the Bible curriculum suggests that the Bible is historically accurate.  The authors tell readers

that the Bible, especially when viewed alongside other historical information, is a reliable historical source.

Also, Chancey argues that the curriculum privileges a Protestant vision of the Bible.  And the curriculum suggests that the real story of the Bible is salvation, a narrative that points unerringly toward the salvation offered by Jesus Christ in the Gospels.

As Chancey concludes,

The combination of a religious purpose, pervading sectarian bias, and frequent factual errors demonstrates that this curriculum has a long way to go before being appropriate for a public school classroom.

What’s next?  Since a public school district in Mustang, Oklahoma has already adopted this Bible curriculum, it appears we are headed for another lawsuit.  If Chancey’s review of this curriculum is accurate, my guess is that this material will be ruled unconstitutional for public schools.

 

The OTHER Hobby Lobby Case

You’ve been following Hobby Lobby’s case for religious freedom before the US Supreme Court.  But did you know Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green has also prepared an ambitious Bible curriculum for use in America’s public schools?

According to Religion News Service, the school board of Mustang, Oklahoma has voted to use the Bible curriculum in its public schools.  Of course, despite some rumblings to the contrary, there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching the Bible in public schools.  The US Supreme Court’s ruling in 1963’s Schempp decision specified that the Bible can and should be taught in public schools, as long as it is not taught devotionally.  That is, children can learn about the Bible, about religion, but not be drilled in any particular religious belief.

But it often seems as if the folks who want to see more Bible in public schools have a decidedly devotional bias to their activism.  As Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University found in his study of Texas Bible classes, a significant proportion of them end up teaching religion, not just teaching about religion.

In this case, no one questions Steve Green’s ardent religiosity.  As the Religion News Service article points out, Green has admitted in public statements that he hopes the Bible curriculum will show that the Bible is “good,” that it’s “true,” and that the Bible’s impact,

whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … when we apply it to our lives in all aspects of our life, that it has been good.

It seems evident that Green hopes this Bible curriculum will lead students toward faith, at least incidentally.  For that reason, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has promised to “scrutinize” the Bible curriculum.

More evidence, it seems, of the uselessness of talking about “America’s public schools” in general.  Schools in some communities, such as Mustang, Oklahoma, may welcome evangelical Protestant curricula into their class schedules.  In other places, Green’s Bible curriculum will not be an issue.  Local school boards make decisions that fit with the cultural politics of their local communities.