On Monday night, the Mustang School District in the suburbs of Oklahoma City voted to implement an elective Bible curriculum in its high schools.
The course has already proved to be popular. Mustang school superintendent Sean McDaniel told the Christian Post on Wednesday that it was the first-choice elective of over 170 students.
But the organization creating the curriculum, headed up by Hobby Lobby heir Steve Green, has everyone from the ACLU to religious scholars gearing up for what could be an impending cultural, and legal, battle.
The Family Behind Hobby Lobby
The family behind the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores is best known these days for its Supreme Court battle against the Affordable Care Act’s mandatory contraception rules.
The Greens, whose evangelical Christian faith informs every aspect of their various business ventures including paying entry wages that are 90 percent above the federal minimum, don’t oppose all contraception — they just don’t want to be forced to pay for “morning after pills” like Plan B.
It’s true that Steve Green, Hobby Lobby president and favorite son of founder David Green, is a biased man of faith: he owns 40,000 Bibles.
Green’s Good Book collection is so huge, he’s building a museum in D.C. to house it.
At his 2013 Templeton Award speech, Steve Green told the crowd, “Over and over, archeological evidence supports the history… the accuracy of this book.”
“The book that we have is a reliable historical document,” Green told the crowd at the New York’s Union League Club. “When we present the evidence, the evidence is overwhelming.”
Bible as Literal Truth?
That’s the kind of talk that worries lawyers and atheists alike, who worry that Green’s outspoken belief in the Bible as literal truth could impact his ability to present a curriculum that is an objectively academic study of the Bible’s role in history — which is exactly what it needs to do in order to be legal.
Ira Lupu, a law professor who co-authored the 2007 Pew Forum report Religion In The Public Schools, told VICE News a lawsuit is likely to arise in Oklahoma, because secularist organizations are “always policing” the issue of faith-based curricula in public schools.
“If the curriculum intends to teach the Bible as ‘truth,’ this is a non-starter. A public school cannot offer a course that affirms or denies religious truths,” Lupu said, while acknowledging that Green’s syllabus has yet to be made public. “The wild card is — like every other course — it depends on who’s teaching it and how it’s taught. The curriculum might not teach the Bible as truth, but the teacher might.”
“We would know more if we’d been able to look at a copy of the curriculum,” Sarah Jones of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State told VICE News. “We’re concerned about the prospect of proselytization. In Steve Green’s 2013 speech, he said the nation is in danger because of the way the Bible is taught.”
Jones told VICE News that lawyers at her organization are now “reviewing the situation.”
And then there are the atheists. Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Andrew Seidel sent a warning letter to the superintendent of Mustang Public School late last year after the new curriculum was proposed.
That letter pointed out the Green family’s extreme views, including refusal to donate to “groups that don’t believe in a literal virgin birth.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation currently has 11 ongoing lawsuits, three of which challenge schools’ usage of prayer and religious materials.
The Department of Education has long been at the center of a tug-of-war over religious expression in public schools.
The landmark Abington v. Schempp case banned mandatory prayer and Bible teachings, but 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act instructed the DOE to offer guidance on “constitutionally protected prayer in public schools” as a First Amendment right.
Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at Newseum in Washington, DC, has drafted several guides to usage of the Bible in public schools. Haynes told VICE News this isn’t the first time the tiny Mustang school district has been at the forefront of such controversy.
In 2004, Mustang School Superintendent Karl Springer freaked out after talking to lawyers and pulled a nativity scene and the song “Silent Night” from the elementary school’s annual holiday pageant.
Springer was concerned about violating the law, but amid the ensuing public outcry it became clear that schools can’t force kids to abandon religious expression any more than they can force them to participate.
Fights over Bible courses in public schools aren’t always about secularism. Often, the clashes occur when people’s differing views and interpretations of the Bible come into play.
“Students who self-select to take a Bible elective often do come from strong Evangelical communities,” Haynes told VICE News. “Both students and their parents are often shocked by the method of scholarly approach. It’s dicey; because it could present views they disagree with.
“Many of the students and parents that want to take these courses, they’re not signing up for the kind of college course you might see on interpreting the Bible’s historical value — they’re signing up for Bible study, the way they’ve seen it in their churches,” Haynes said.
To be fair, Green has declared the academic legitimacy of his Bible curriculum.
At a November Mustang school board meeting, Green told the crowd the Bible elective being crafted by Green Scholars Initiative would be nonsectarian and focused primarily on the history and impact of the Bible in its many forms.
“This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it’s about a book,” Green said.
McDaniel told the Christian Post that an experienced schoolteacher from the district was lined up to teach the course, and "the curriculum has been through a rigorous review to check for bias and ensure the content is neutral."
No matter what side you’re on, the issue over Bibles in schools will not likely go away soon.
“The big deal is, we’ve been fighting about religion in public schools for more than 150 years,” Haynes pointed out. “In the 19th century, people died in the Bible wars over the idea of whose Bible would be read.”
“This is a long history with a lot of blood on the floor,” Haynes told VICE News.