Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “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 consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

Teaching the Bible, Texas Style

A new report from the Texas Freedom Network warns that some public schools in Texas are teaching religion.  Not all religions, but the Bible-loving, apocalypse-watching, evolution-denying type of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

How do these public schools justify it?  According to the TFN report, public schools fold these sectarian doctrines into their Bible courses.  Public-school courses about the Bible are explicitly constitutional.  US Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark made very clear in his majority opinion in Abington Township v. Schempp (1963) that public schools can teach the Bible, if they did so in a non-devotional way.  As Clark specified,

“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 consistently with the First Amendment.”

However, the TFN report argues that many of the Texas school districts are using Bible classes to teach religious doctrine, including the notion that the Bible demands a young earth.  The report’s author, Mark A. Chancey of Southern Methodist University, reports that the courses are generally poorly taught, with low academic rigor, by underprepared teachers.

Professor Chancey includes excerpts from some of the teaching materials.  In the Dalhart Independent School District, for example, one student information sheet included the following information:

“Since God is perfect and infallible, an inspired book is absolutely infallible and errorless in its facts and doctrines as presented in the original manuscript” (pg. 28).

In the Bible courses of Lazbuddie, Texas, students will read the following:

“We should have an understanding of what happened in Noah’s day if we are to know when the coming of our Lord is near.  What are the similarities between the days of Noah and the days preceding the coming of Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:37-39)?” (pg. 32)

In Dayton schools, students watch the Left Behind movie, fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye’s dramatization of the rapture and final days (pg. 19).

As Chancey points out, these doctrines are intensely sectarian.  They teach a specific interpretation of the Bible as eternally true.  Students in these public school classes would be told that the doctrines of conservative evangelical Protestantism are the correct and only interpretation of the Bible.

Are we shocked?

We shouldn’t be.

Here’s why not:

First of all, the numbers of schools and students involved is very small.  Professor Chancey found 57 districts plus three charter schools who taught Bible courses in 2011-2012, a small percentage of the 1037 districts in Texas.  Not all of these districts taught the Bible in such heavy-handed sectarian ways.  And of the districts that reported their student numbers, only three had more than fifty students enrolled in Bible class.  Six districts had fewer than five students in Bible (pg. 5).

Second, the practice of teaching sectarian religion in public-school Bible classes has a long and surprisingly uncontroversial history.  As I explored in my 1920s book, while public attention was focused on anti-evolution laws, between 1919 and 1931 eleven states quietly passed mandatory Bible-reading laws for public schools.

Finally, even after the anti-Bible SCOTUS ruling in 1963, many public schools simply continued the practice.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Philip Hammond found in their survey of schools in a Midwestern state, the Supreme Court rulings against public-school Bible reading made absolutely no difference in school practice.  Where students had read the Bible before, they continued to do so, without raising any controversy.

So Professor Chancey’s findings that a few students in a few public schools in Texas learn a sectarian interpretation of the Bible should come as no surprise.  As Chancey notes, similar Bible classes go on in several other states as well (pg. v).  Moreover, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have convincingly argued, public school teachers usually teach ideas that are locally uncontroversial.  In some places, that means teaching creationism as science.  In others, it means teaching the Bible as history.