South Dakota Legislature urges schools to expand Bible instruction

By Chet Brokaw

Associated Press

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) -- South Dakota lawmakers who earlier this year urged public schools to provide academic instruction on the Bible may need the patience of Job as they wait for schools to embrace the idea.

With only a few lawmakers questioning whether it could blur the line between government and religion, the Legislature in January passed a non-binding resolution encouraging schools to teach -- not preach -- about the Bible so students gain an understanding of its influence on Western civilization's art, history and culture.

The members of the Yankton Ministerial Association later voted unanimously to endorse the idea. Associate Pastor Bob Mason of the Kingsway Christian Church said he hopes people in the southeast South Dakota community will ask the Yankton School District to include a Bible course in its curriculum

But Yankton Superintendent Joseph Gertsema said the district has no plans to add an elective course on the Bible. Teachers already refer to the Bible when it's key to understanding history, art and literature, he said.

"Frankly, with the budget situation we have here in Yankton, we're trying to hang onto the courses and the staff that we have, let alone starting new ones," Gertsema said.

Superintendents at other districts also said the Legislature's non-binding resolution won't change how their schools treat the Bible, citing a lack of money to add a separate course and the difficulty in crafting a course that would avoid controversy.

Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, the main sponsor of the legislative resolution, said it is intended to let people know that academic instruction about the Bible is constitutional as long as teachers don't press students to accept religious beliefs.

Hickey said he knows of no South Dakota school currently offering an elective course on the Bible, but he's been contacted by people in three communities, including Yankton, who want their schools to do so.

"I'm just trying to take the fear factor out of it for a school district that might want to do that," said Hickey, pastor at the Church of the Gate in Sioux Falls.

Officials with the state Education Department said that each school district will be left to make its own decision on whether to add an elective Bible course, and if so, what text and curriculum to use. The Associated School Boards of South Dakota, a group that represents the local school districts, is making no recommendation to districts on whether to adopt such curriculum, executive director Wade Pogany said.

South Dakota became the sixth state to pass some kind of measure encouraging the academic study of the Bible in public schools, following Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

The resolution, which does not have the force of law, urges public schools to provide instruction that makes students familiar with the content, character and narratives of the Bible and makes them aware of the role the Bible has played in the development of literature, art, culture and public discourse.

Hickey and other supporters said students need to be familiar with the Bible because it influences all aspects of Western civilization, including the English language. For example, the patience of Job refers to the title character in the Old Testament's Book of Job, who suffered many misfortunes without wavering in his faith in God.

Other examples include "old as Methuselah," which refers to a man said to have lived 969 years, and "prodigal son," which refers to the story of a son who was welcomed back by his father after leaving home and squandering his wealth in wild living.

"We've got kids who can quote Sponge Bob, but not this book that shaped civilization as we know it and the leaders of our nation's history," Hickey said.

Hickey said he knows people question his motives because he's a pastor, but he said he doesn't want public school courses to promote Christianity: "There's a non-devotional way to teach it. There really is."

Rep. Marc Feinstein, D-Sioux Falls, voted against the resolution, saying academic instruction could easily turn into a promotion of religious beliefs. Many Christians probably don't realize South Dakota includes people of other faiths who would be bothered by classroom discussion of the Bible, said Feinstein, who is Jewish.

"Talk about it in church. That's a great place for talking about academic study of the Bible," Feinstein said.

The South Dakota resolution refers to a 1999 document titled "The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide," in which 19 groups ranging from the National School Boards Association to Christian evangelical organizations endorsed the idea of teaching the Bible in public schools as long as the instruction is academic and not devotional, does not engage in religious practice, does not encourage or discourage differing religious views and does not ask students to conform to any religious belief.

Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, who wrote that guide, said South Dakota's resolution is better than those passed by most other states because it clearly urges teaching about the Bible in ways that conform to the First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion and prohibits government from establishing a religion.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 ruled that public schools can teach about the Bible in a non-religious fashion, Haynes said.

The Bible is essential to understanding many works, from those of William Shakespeare to painters and sculptors, Haynes said.

"It is arguably the single most important book in Western history and Western civilization, the most influential book," Haynes said. "Students need to be literate on the Bible. They're lost without it."

It's difficult to gauge what is going on in a lot of schools because inappropriate teaching doesn't come to light until someone complains about a course that may stray into promoting religion, Haynes said. Disputes have arisen in a few states, he said.

"Until there's a fight, we just don't know," Haynes said.

Published: Wed, May 30, 2012


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