Politics & Government

Some of Kentucky’s ‘Bible literacy’ classes illegally promote Christianity, ACLU says

The Kentucky ACLU says Bible literacy classes offered at a half-dozen school districts cross the line into promotion of Christianity in public schools.
The Kentucky ACLU says Bible literacy classes offered at a half-dozen school districts cross the line into promotion of Christianity in public schools. File - LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

The “Bible literacy” classes offered in a half-dozen Kentucky school districts actively promote Christianity to students, which is unconstitutional, rather than neutrally teaching about the Bible’s historical and cultural role in society, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky says.

The ACLU sent a letter Friday to the Kentucky Department of Education, urging it to remind every school district about the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional to use public school educational courses to teach the Bible as truth or from a religious perspective, or to use such courses to disparage other faiths,” ACLU attorneys Amy Cubbage and Heather Gatnarek wrote in the letter.

“Any course addressing the Bible in public schools must be secular, objective, non-devotional, and must not promote any specific religious view,” they wrote. “As one court has put it, there is a ‘difference between teaching about religion, which is acceptable, and teaching religion, which is not.’”

Among the conflicts cited by the ACLU:

▪  “Letcher County’s Bible electives was: ‘What are some promises in the Bible that God gives everyone who believes in him?’ High school students in that class are also assigned to ‘Do your best to build close relationships with other Christians ... .’” The worksheet used for this assignment appears to have originated with a Christian publisher, which is not an appropriate source of teaching materials for a public school, the ACLU said.

▪  “A worksheet on the Book of Proverbs in McCracken County asks students, ‘How are the virtues praised by the Book of Proverbs important character traits for society today?’ Students in the same class were encouraged to turn to the Book of Philippians to learn how to treat anxiety.”

▪  “Students in Barren County, after visiting the South Central Kentucky Cultural Center, are assigned to write to a family member and encourage them to visit the Cultural Center as well: ‘Devote your writings to an item or items of interest in the religious exhibit relating to faith and religious heritage. Discuss why the reader needs to appreciate this.’”

Brian Harper, superintendent of McCracken County schools, said he’s confident his teachers aren’t crossing any lines they shouldn’t. McCracken County has 62 students enrolled in two Bible literacy classes, Harper said.

“They (the ACLU) criticized us for having students memorize Bible passages,” Harper said. “Well, in other classes, we call on students to memorize poetry. That’s one way you teach.”

By comparison, Fayette and Jefferson county public schools offer world religion courses that appropriately use the Bible as one reference work without teaching it as divine scripture, Gatnarek said in an interview Tuesday. But those courses also teach about other religions, not just Christianity, she said.

“For a lot of teachers, it’s going to be difficult to teach from the Bible without crossing the line into proselytizing, which is not permitted in a public school classroom under the Constitution,” Gatnarek said. “That’s why the ACLU was concerned with these classes when this bill was introduced in the first place. We were skeptical as to whether this could be done properly.”

The Kentucky General Assembly last year authorized high schools to offer an elective Bible literacy course. The sponsor of the law, state Rep. DJ Johnson, R-Owensboro, said students need an understanding of the Bible to realize “the impact the Bible has had on our culture today.” The classes should be taught from a position of religious neutrality, Johnson said at the time.

Later in the year, the ACLU used the state’s Open Records Act to request the Bible literacy class teaching materials from every school district.

Most school districts indicated in their replies to the ACLU that they weren’t offering such a class, at least not yet. From the teaching materials it did receive, the ACLU raised objections to the classes in Barren, Letcher, Lewis, McCracken, Wayne and Whitley counties.

In Letcher County, for example, students are given a worksheet about the troubled life of Joseph from the Book of Genesis.

“God has a purpose in our suffering,” the students are told. “God grew Joseph from immaturity to strength and mercy. God used bad circumstances to save Joseph’s family and change attitudes.”

At present, there are no state guidelines for school districts on Bible literacy classes. The state Education Department is still preparing them, spokeswoman Rebecca Blessing said Tuesday.

“Until these standards are finalized and further guidance is provided by the department, it is up to each public school district in Kentucky to ensure the curriculum used in any classes allowed under House Bill 128 abides with the letter of the law and the tenets established by constitutional law,” Blessing said.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics