Much of the Odessa debate centered on the suitability of a particular curriculum, the Bible course produced by the Christian Right organization The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). The whole push for a course there was driven by NCBCPS supporters, who insisted that the group’s curriculum was academically sound, nonsectarian in nature, and immune to legal challenge. Studies of that curriculum undertaken by academics before, during, and after the Odessa controversy have demonstrated that exactly the opposite is true: its various versions have presented conservative Protestant theological beliefs as normative, often promoting views of the Bible as straightforward unproblematic history, scientifically accurate, and completely unchanged in its textual transmission.
By Mark A. Chancey
Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies,
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences
Southern Methodist University
When the controversy over a public school Bible course in Odessa, Texas garnered national attention in the spring of 2005, some observers predicted that developments there were harbingers of a new wave of interest in the subject. Their predictions have proven to be entirely correct, with elements of the Odessa conflict turning out to be the typical of debates about Bible courses taking place elsewhere around the country: a politicized school board, with some members determined to introduce a Bible course at any cost; a divided public, with some enthusiastic about making the Good Book a textbook and others wary of attempts to erase the line separating church and state; and a lack of clarity among many of the involved parties about how to teach the Bible in a nonsectarian manner. What most people seemed to agree upon in Odessa was that the Bible was indeed “worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” to quote the Supreme Court (Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 U. S. 203 ), but finding consensus on how to teach the material “objectively as part of a secular program of education” proved difficult—a shame, because few would seriously dispute that knowledge of the Bible is an important aspect of cultural literacy, particularly in western contexts.
Much of the Odessa debate centered on the suitability of a particular curriculum, the Bible course produced by the Christian Right organization The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS).1 The whole push for a course there was driven by NCBCPS supporters, who insisted that the group’s curriculum was academically sound, nonsectarian in nature, and immune to legal challenge. Studies of that curriculum undertaken by academics before, during, and after the Odessa controversy have demonstrated that exactly the opposite is true: its various versions have presented conservative Protestant theological beliefs as normative, often promoting views of the Bible as straightforward unproblematic history, scientifically accurate, and completely unchanged in its textual transmission. Some versions even repeated that the urban legend about NASA’s discovery of a missing day in time that corresponds to the story of the sun standing still in Joshua 10 was accurate, urging teachers to make sure that students knew about this important scientific discovery. Most editions have displayed a troubling political ideology that wraps the (Protestant) Bible in an American flag.2 A federal judge prohibited the Lee County, Florida school district from teaching the New Testament portion of the course in a 1998 case (Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp. 2d 1426 [M. D. Fla. 1998]).
Supporters of the NCBCPS were taken aback when a challenger appeared in the form of the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), a big tent organization with members stretching across the religious, academic, and political spectra.3 The jury is still out on whether the BLP succeeds in maintaining a nonsectarian pose and high scholarly standards. Thus far, it has been both praised and faulted,4 but no one in the scholarly community has yet questioned that it is a more appropriate choice than the NCBCPS course. With the publication of its textbook, the debate in Odessa shifted from whether to offer a Bible course to which Bible curriculum to use.
It was a choice that has factored into debates in several states. Since 2006, at least eight legislatures have considered bills promoting Bible courses (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas), while others have seen the introduction of supportive resolutions (Louisiana) or related legislation (such as a released time law in South Carolina). In some states, the two curricula have literally been pitted against each other in competing bills. The Alabama bills died in committee, though the state board of education later approved both the BLP and the NCBCPS for use.
Georgia is one of the three states whose bill was actually signed into law, and the number of courses taught there appears to be rising. The bill’s primary sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, sought help from the NCBCPS in drafting it and later joined the group’s advisory board.5 The law (SB 79) was based on NCBCPS promotional materials and calls for elective courses in the “History and Literature of the Old Testament Era” and “History and Literature of the New Testament Era.” It directs the state board of education to adopt a suitable curriculum, and the Superintendent of Education and the state board have subsequently developed course standards. Both the law and the standards specifically require all courses to be nonsectarian, but they offer only general guidance on how to reach that goal. For example, they specify that the course must “familiarize students with … the history recorded in the Old and New Testaments,” as if the biblical material is straightforward history. The broad injunction that the courses “be taught in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the biblical materials or texts from other religious or cultural traditions” offers little concrete advice on how to handle the complex issues revolving around the Bible and history.
Texas, too, experienced a vigorous debate over Bible courses when the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Warren Chisum, introduced HB 1287 in the spring of 2007. His original bill required every school district in the state to offer a Bible elective if a sufficient number of students requested it, while simultaneously prohibiting the state from approving curricula or developing course standards. The effect of the bill would have been to send teachers into a legal minefield without a map. The need for more guidance for such courses was well known. Texas Freedom Network had released a study in 2006 documenting the extensively sectarian nature of most Texas Bible courses.6 Chisum’s expansive bill would have multiplied such problems. Fortunately, the House Public Education Committee thoroughly amended it, making the offering of such courses fully optional and requiring the state board of education to identify course standards to help teachers construct solid courses. The board of education, however, skirted the intention of the law and declared that the generic course standards associated with any special topics course in social studies or language arts were sufficient for Bible courses. Texas teachers are still waiting for help from the state.7 In the meantime, another Texas Freedom Network study has revealed that the Bible makes regular appearances elsewhere in public schools: sex education courses. Nearly 10% of Texas school districts incorporate inappropriate religious materials into their treatments of that subject (one school district even suggests that when considering potential mates, students should ask, “Is Jesus their first love?”).8
Tennessee’s 2008 bill (SB 4104/ HB 4089) also made its way all the way through the legislative process to become law. Like the bills of other states, it specified that the Bible courses should be nonsectarian (prohibiting proselytizing, for example) but skirted the specific sorts of challenges that teachers will face when constructing their classes. Whether educators will receive help in this regard will depend upon the course standards, which are under development at the state education agency.
States are not the only forum for debate. Stories regularly appear in the media about districts like Odessa where the introduction of Bible courses proves to be a point of contention. Examples from the past few years include Paradise, California; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Shreveport, Louisiana; Craig, Colorado; Craig County, Virginia; Treasure Valley, Idaho; Marengo County, Alabama; and Waterloo, Iowa. The actual number of controversies and courses is unknown because most attract little interest outside of their own communities.
The scholarly community continues to look for ways to help states and school districts that want to teach about the Bible do so in a way that is academically sound and legally appropriate. The Society of Biblical Literature has published a well-received resource, Bible Elective in Public Schools: A Guide (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 9 and in the summer of 2009, it is hosting two workshops for Georgia teachers, one through the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and the other through a Regional Educational Service Agency with the state Department of Education. The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin plans to offer training to Texas teachers in August 2009. These workshops are apparently the only ones in the country currently offered by biblical scholars, though earlier in the decade Florida State University hosted a similar program and scholars at Rhodes College assisted schools in Tennessee.10
And whatever happened in Odessa itself? After a heated public debate, the school district trustees opted to use the NCBCPS in December 2005, and the county’s two high schools began offering the course the next fall. Course materials from the 2005-2006 school year show that Odessa’s course replicated much of the sectarian stance of the NCBCPS materials, teaching the class in a way that presented conservative Protestant perspectives as the norm. A group of local citizens, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, filed suit to stop use of the NCBCPS materials. Although the school district’s legal representation insisted that the NCBCPS course was unproblematic and that the district’s teachers had succeeded in adhering to First Amendment guidelines, the district decided in May 2008 that it would rather abandon the NCBCPS course than defend it in court. In a mediated settlement, the district agreed to develop a wholly new curriculum, and it sought help in doing so from literature professors at the Oklahoma State University and Florida Atlantic University. The plaintiffs, who had never opposed Bible courses in general, felt that the settlement addressed their concerns and were happy to drop the suit. The course has subsequently been taught without incident.
1 The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, The Bible in History and Literature (Ablu Publishing, 2005).