After conducting an Open Records Act investigation of all 173 school districts across the state, The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (ACLU-KY) has found several schools offering “Bible literacy” classes that fall outside the boundaries of state and federal law. The investigation stems from the passage of the controversial legislation passed last year by the Republican-led legislature and signed into law by Governor Matt Bevin.
During the 2017 Kentucky General Assembly session, the legislature proposed and passed House Bill 128, also known as “an act relating to Bible literacy courses in the public schools.”
The bill added a section to existing law that created the following public school elective courses:
- An elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible;
- An elective social studies course on the New Testament of the Bible; or
- An elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.
The bill went on to say the purpose of a course under this section is to:
Teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; and [f]amiliarize students with, as applicable: (1) The contents of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament; (2) The history of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament; (3) The literary style and structure of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament; and (4) The influence of the Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament on law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values, and culture.
The bill took care to note that:
A course offered under this section will be expected to follow applicable law and all federal and state guidelines in maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating the diverse religious views, traditions and perspectives of students in the school. A course under this section shall not endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective.
Based on the conclusions just announced by ACLU-KY, several school districts may be in violation of state and federal law in the way they’ve implemented the new classes.
In a letter to the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), ACLU-KY described Bible literacy classes at several districts across the state that don’t comply with state and federal guidelines in maintaining religious neutrality.
In a statement, ACLU-KY noted they “…found many of the courses that are being offered do not fall within constitutional strictures, which require any use of religious text in the classroom to be secular, objective, nondevotional, and must not promote any specific religious view.”
“The investigation uncovered public school teachers using the Bible to impart religious life lessons (Barren, McCracken, and Letcher Counties), use of online Sunday School lessons and worksheets for course source material and assignments (Letcher and Wayne Counties), and rote memorization of Biblical text (McCracken County) – practices which fall far short of academic and objective study of the Bible and its historical context or literary value.”
They included copies of some of the lessons with their letter – they can be viewed here.
Commenting on the investigation, ACLU-KY Attorney Heather Gatnarek said, “In the wake of the passage of the ‘Bible literacy’ bill last year, the KDE has been charged with implementing guidance and standards for ‘Bible literacy’ classes in the Commonwealth.” Gatnarek added, “We hope our investigative findings demonstrate the need for clear, concise, and controlled guidance for teachers in addition to a plan for monitoring these courses so students’ and parents’ constitutional rights are not violated.”
ACLU-KY Executive Director Michael Aldridge also released a statement following the investigation. “The ACLU of Kentucky continues to believe that ‘Bible literacy’ courses, some of which have been in place before the bill’s passage last year, have no place in our Commonwealth’s public schools,” he said. “We tried to warn legislators about the difficulty of implementing a constitutionally sound course focused on one religious text. Our investigation now vividly illustrates the myriad of problems that can arise in our classrooms when they operate without proper guidance and training. Now, we look to the KDE to promulgate academic standards in this arena that can pass constitutional muster.”
Rather than threaten litigation, ACLU-KY offered their services to assist the state in maintaining legal compliance. “In the letter to the KDE, the ACLU-KY extends an offer to be a resource as standards, guidance, and curriculum suggestions are developed,” they stated.
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