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FL House Subcommittee OK's 'Study of Bible' Bill Despite Fears of Evangelizing

Bible Study

TALLAHASSEE – The House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee on Thursday resoundingly endorsed a proposal to mandate that public high school students are offered elective classes on religion and the Bible, despite constitutional concerns and fears that school districts could be embroiled in lawsuits over “evangelizing.”

House Bill 195, the "Study of the Bible and Religion Act," was advanced in an 11-3 vote and referred for further review by the House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee and Education Committee. A Senate version has not been filed.

Sponsor Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, a self-professed “demon buster” known for her controversial remarks and “In God We Trust” legislation, told the panel that the classes would be objective and voluntary.

A former Jacksonville city council member and founder of Spoken Word Ministries in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Daniels said it was important to offer all students an academic introduction to the “best-selling book” of all time.

“This is a public policy issue, not a worship issue,” she said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, questioned how Daniels’ bill could be objective if it only offers insight into one religion’s literature.

“I don’t know how you can have religious neutrality if your curriculum is just focused on one holy book,” she said.

HB 195 would amend a 2011 statute that permits districts the option of offering “objective” study of the Bible by making it mandatory for all 67 of the state’s public school districts to provide the curriculum as electives, meaning students are not required to take the courses.

Daniel’s bill requests that study of religion - courses on the Old Testament and Hebrew scriptures, courses on the New Testament, and courses on Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament and New Testament - be added to the state’s Department of Education Course Code Directory (CCD) and be funded through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP).

Since 2011, Florida law permits, but does not require, public school districts to offer a course on the study of the Bible and religion. Any course on the Bible and religion “must be a secular program of education that is an objective study,” according to the state’s Department of Education (DOE) guidelines.

The state’s DOE defines objective study of religion and the Bible as “a historical study that is not intended to convert or evangelize the student. It looks at how literature, arts, history, forms of government, archaeology, civilizations, and cultures have been influenced by the Bible.”

DOE guidelines state an objective, historical analysis of the Bible as literature “is very different from a devotional study of religion and the Bible. A devotional study of the Bible accepts it as divinely inspired. Unlike an objective study, it has the goal of evangelizing and converting the student. It attempts to help the student determine how to live according to religious principles.”

Critics argue it is difficult to offer Bible study courses with a secular, literary emphasis without blurring the line between academics and “evangelizing.”

A 2006 study by the Texas Freedom Network concluded Bible courses taught in public schools were “explicitly devotional” and taught from a Protestant Christian perspective that the Bible is divinely inspired.

School districts argue forcing them to offer such curriculum as electives is certain to prompt lawsuits from the state’s many self-professed “Bible experts” who will disagree with how the course is taught, as well as from parents and taxpayers who will see it as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring schools to have daily Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, but did not ban the Bible from classrooms.

The court, in its Abington Township v. Schempp ruling, noted, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”

According to the American Association of School Administrators, public schools in at least 43 states offer some type of Bible courses and at least seven have adopted laws similar to Daniels’ proposal requiring districts provide Bible study as electives.

Indiana and North Dakota lawmakers are also considering similar “study of the Bible” bills this year.

Daniels, elected to the House in 2016, already has a colorful history of submitting controversial bills that, in many cases, have been adopted.

In 2017, her HB 303, the "Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act," was passed. It bans districts “from discriminating against students, parents, and school personnel on basis of religious viewpoints or expression.”

Last year Daniels introduced HB 839, which mandates public schools and buildings display the motto, “In God We Trust” in a “conspicuous place.” The bill passed the House 97-10 and was signed by then Gov. Rick Scott in April.

This piece appeared in the Watchdog.org and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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