A bill introduced last month by a dozen House Republicans would direct the Department of Education to prepare materials and teacher training for a public high school course focused on the Hebrew Scriptures and the Bible's New Testament.
In our view, this bill is unnecessary.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled requirement of daily Bible readings and prayer in public schools are unconstitutional, but the decision in Abington versus Schempp allowed religion in public school curriculum. While government can't promote or put down a religion, the court said teaching in public schools of religion's role in history and literature is acceptable.
In writing for the majority 8-1 opinion, Justice Thomas Clark said: "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. ... It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities."
"Schempp became the founding document for teaching about religion in school," Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and vice president of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, said in 2013, 50 years after Abington versus Schempp. "It is a very powerful document … that we still use today in working out these issues."
When it comes to instruction of religion in public schools, in other words, it's all about the approach taken - by the state, by the school and by the teacher.
Like the U.S. Supreme Court, we don't have an issue with study of Christianity in public schools, so long as it's within limits allowed by law today. We support these limits:
- The instruction must be academic, not devotional.
- Study of Christianity should be included within broader instruction of all religions. In fact, we believe value exists for any Iowa public high school student who takes a course in world religion, including the Christian religion.
- No school should be required to offer and no student should be required to take such a class. If a school district wishes to offer the class in Iowa, the Department of Education should provide the necessary materials and training to support the decision.
In our view, Iowa legislation that would cross any of those lines invites legal action the state would be wise to avoid.