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More states moving toward teaching Scripture in public schools

Bible classes in public school could become increasingly common across the United States if other states follow Kentucky's lead in passing legislation that encourages high schools to teach the Bible.

Longtime English teacher Ellen Powless leads a Bible class in February at McCracken County High School in Paducah, Ky. (Photo by Isaac Smith for the Washington Post)
Longtime English teacher Ellen Powless leads a Bible class in February at McCracken County High School in Paducah, Ky. (Photo by Isaac Smith for the Washington Post)Read more

GLASGOW, Ky. — Todd Steenbergen leads worship services in church sometimes, but today he was preaching in a different venue: the public-school classroom where he teaches.

"A lot of people will look at the Beatitudes and glean some wisdom from them," he told the roomful of students, pointing toward the famous blessings he had posted on the board, some of the best-known verses in the Bible. "I want you to think about what kind of wisdom we can get from these today."

While Steenbergen was urging students to draw lessons from the Bible here in southern Kentucky, students in Paducah — halfway across the state — were reading from the Gospels as well, in a classroom where they drew pictures of the cross and of Adam and Eve walking with dinosaurs, hanging them on the walls.

Scenes of Bible classes in public school could become increasingly common across the United States if other states follow Kentucky's lead in passing legislation that encourages high schools to teach the Bible.

Activists on the religious right, through their legislative effort Project Blitz, drafted a law that encourages Bible classes in public schools and persuaded at least 10 states’ legislatures to introduce versions of it this year. Georgia and Arkansas recently passed bills that are awaiting their governors’ signatures.

Among the powerful fans of these public-school Bible classes: President Donald Trump.

"Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible," Trump tweeted in January. "Starting to make a turn back? Great!"

Proponents of Bible instruction — such as Chuck Stetson, who publishes a textbook that he says is already in use in more than 600 public schools across the nation — are thrilled. "We're not too far away from a tipping point. Instead of having to find a reason to teach the Bible in public schools academically, as part of a good education, you're going to have to find a reason not to do it," Stetson said. "When the president of the United States gives us a shout-out, that's pretty crazy … It's got the momentum now."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan advocacy group organizing opposition to the state laws, takes a dark view of Project Blitz. The organization coordinated a statement signed by numerous religious groups that oppose Project Blitz’s efforts — including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Hindu American Foundation, Muslim Advocates, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church.

"It's part of an effort to establish this sort of narrow Christian agenda as the norm for our country, the government-sanctioned and supported norm," said Rachel Laser, the president and chief executive of the Americans United group.

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In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp that school-led Bible reading is an unconstitutional religious practice. But the court noted that teaching the Bible was allowed: “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.”

Advocates of these classes view the Bible as a key component of a well-rounded education, key to understanding Western literature and American history. Such classes have long been offered by some public schools across the nation, sometimes taught by public-school employees with textbooks paid for by school budgets. Other times, schools have adopted "released time" rules that let students use part of their school day attending church-taught classes. West Virginia is now embroiled in a legal battle over such a policy.

Even those opposed to Bible classes in public schools often agree that religious literacy can be valuable if it is incorporated into world-religions or history classes.

But that is not what is called for in the state bills supported by Project Blitz, an effort of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which describes its purpose as protecting "the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square."

Leaders of Project Blitz did not respond to inquiries from the Washington Post.

According to Americans United's analysis of the texts of state Bible-class bills, all but South Carolina's — which includes permission to teach alternatives to evolution, along with "religions of the world" — focus on the Christian Bible.

Alabama’s, Georgia’s, and West Virginia’s bills say schools can teach the Old or New Testament, or both. Florida’s bill, which does not just encourage but requires public high schools to have an elective religion course, called for either “objective study of religion” or “objective study of the Bible”; consideration of the bill was indefinitely postponed this month.

Mississippi’s and North Dakota’s bills failed this year. The rest are still up for consideration, according to state legislative trackers.

The model for many of these states is Kentucky, where state standards for elective Bible education became the law in 2017. The American Civil Liberties Union swiftly responded, issuing a letter that said it would closely monitor all school districts in the state. The organization flagged four school districts in Kentucky, warning that the materials used to teach the Bible in those schools suggested they were violating the Constitution and might lead to a future ACLU lawsuit.

Two of the four districts have since stopped offering a Bible class, saying student interest was low.

The remaining two are in Glasgow and Paducah. Both are in mostly rural counties where residents are vastly more likely to hold evangelical Christian beliefs than those of any other religious affiliation, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Very few residents of either county belong to a non-Christian religious group.

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At Barren County High School in Glasgow, principal Brad Johnson refers to the school he graduated from and now leads as "a prayerful school" and "a church-involved community." On days when they are at school but students are not, teachers lead prayers over the loudspeaker. Johnson, also a Sunday-school teacher, says he sometimes drops in on Steenbergen's Bible class for ideas. He said parents are glad their children take the Bible class because they know Steenbergen is "a Christian man" who leads Baptist services outside school and Fellowship of Christian Athletes programs in school.

Students describe Steenbergen's Bible class as a chance to do something they enjoy during the school day — Cole Wilson, who took the class in a previous semester, likened reading the Bible in school to getting the chance to shoot hoops during gym class.

"I like studying the Bible anyway," agreed Mattie Coomer, who also took the class. "As a Christian, I believe the Bible, it's a living book — if God is a living God, he's going to speak through his word every time you open up the Bible. It's more important than any other book I could be reading."

Coomer said she just finished reading the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, outside of school, and then started all over again. But that's not what happens in the classroom. In Steenbergen's Bible class, the students hardly read the Bible at all.

There is no classroom set of Bibles for every student, no encouragement to download a Bible app on their smartphones. He never assigns chapters or verses to read. Instead, he said, he summarizes biblical stories for them and focuses class time on highlighting connections between the Bible and modern life.

During one class this spring, he spent most of the hour-and-a-half period on a game in which students guessed which theme from the Gospel of Matthew or which blessing from the Beatitudes that Steenbergen meant to connect to when he played clips from country songs and Disney movies.

His consistent message throughout the game was that students should draw moral lessons from the Gospels.

" 'Pure in spirit' is a good word to equate to humility, humble," he said. "We see humility, a wise thing that could be applicable for us today. How many of us would like to be more humble about something?" And later: "Was there a time you helped provide some cheer for someone and it made you aware how good it was? … We can use wisdom and apply it in new ways today and help people be comforted."

That was the sort of teaching that concerned ACLU lawyers, who flagged Steenbergen's class as a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.

"We urge you to put in place mechanisms for monitoring these courses as they are implemented to ensure that they do not run afoul of the students' and parents' constitutional rights," the ACLU wrote to the Kentucky Department of Education.

Steenbergen, one of four members of the committee that wrote the statewide standards for public-school Bible education, said he thinks he is toeing a constitutionally permissible line — in an unusual way. His solution is simply leaving out parts of the Bible.

In the Beatitudes, he omits phrases. " 'For theirs is the kingdom of heaven,' for example — I don't want to go that deep," he said. "It relates to some discussions that we don't want to get to in the classroom. I'm just saying the themes, how sometimes those themes still show up today and are influences for some people."

He skips much of Paul's letters for the same reason: "So much of it is doctrinal that I don't feel that I should cross the line to promote certain items."

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At McCracken County High in Paducah, Ellen Powless takes a different approach in teaching her Bible class.

All students have a Bible in print as well as a Bible app on their phones or school-issued laptops. Students read chapters for homework and spend much of their class time going line by line through the text together.

Powless paces the room, steering her students through question after question about the words of Scripture.

"Tell me about Isaac. What do we know about Isaac?" she said one morning this semester.

Silence. "That's OK," said Powless, who has taught English for 21 years in the school she also grew up in. "Let's go to the text — Genesis 25."

" 'Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren,' " she read. "Hmm, what other character have we seen that's dealt with barrenness?"

In class, she calls biblical figures "characters" and always refers to "their god," not to "God."

When she began the Exodus story, she briefly noted that historical evidence does not necessarily bear out that any mass exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt ever happened, though she said she did not have time to teach about that evidence.

Her students are already familiar with the Bible — almost all of them participate in religious extracurriculars such as prayer groups and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. On the day that Powless talked about Exodus, 50 McCracken County students had just embarked on a school-sponsored trip to El Salvador, run in conjunction with a Christian group, Starfish Orphan Ministry. On a trip blog, students described writing "Jesus loves you" in the sand and telling people "God bless you" as they handed them ham sandwiches.

Maggie Dowdy said she picked this course because she thought it would be easy. After all, she already knew the Bible from church.

When the class started with the very first Bible story — the story of creation — she was glad she had chosen it. Here at last was the story of human origins that she believed in — not the facts of evolution that she had been taught in her high school science class.

"When I started learning about [evolution], I thought: 'That's not true. Here's what I believe,' " Dowdy said. "I just kind of push it aside now. I know what I believe in. It's just something the teachers have to teach us, but, no, I believe in creation."

Other students echoed her. "We've always in science learned that perspective, evolution and the big bang," Morgan Guess said. "This is the class that allows us the other perspective."

Only Katie King, 17, expressed doubts about the Bible in a discussion one morning. "I took this class to see for myself if this is what I wanted to follow and believe," she told classmates. "My parents are so religious. They push it a lot."

“The Bible per se, some things I’m just like — I don’t know,” said King, who acknowledged that she is often an outlier among her peers because she supports abortion rights and likes reading New York Times articles about politics. “Like one thing — I don’t get that people who are good people, genuinely good, nice people, have good intentions, but because they don’t believe in God, they’re doomed to hell. I can’t accept that. I cannot accept that.”

She hopes to find faith, or to understand her lack of it, she said. But she is no longer sure that her Bible class can offer her an answer.