Courses on Bible up for vote in Georgia

State Board of Education members Thursday approved new academic courses on the Bible, allowing Georgia’s public high schools for the first time to offer taxpayer-funded classes devoted to the “Good Book.”

The two half-credit, voluntary electives will teach interested high school students the history and literature of the Holy Scriptures.

Public high schools could begin offering the courses as early as next school year.

DeKalb County father Jay Cunningham was unimpressed when lawmakers a year ago introduced the bill to create the classes, saying they had more pressing issues. A year later, Cunningham, now a county school board member, still isn’t sure how the classes will benefit students such as his two daughters at Martin Luther King Jr. High in Lithonia. “I think people have a right, when it comes to religion, to choose [what to follow],” said Cunningham, adding that if his daughters wanted to take the course, “as a parent, I would certainly ask them why they’re interested in it. … It goes back to parenting. We’re still responsible for their decision-making. If it’s something I feel is not in their best interest, I will certainly say that.”

While campuses are not required to add the classes, if they do, they will receive state money to pay for them.

Even then, students cannot be compelled to take the classes — which will be offered as English language arts electives — because they are not required for graduation.

“I’ve had a few discussions with educators and legislators … who wanted to know what would be the basis for the courses,” said Wanda Barrs, the education board’s chairwoman. “That’s why it’s important to get this out there for them to consider if this is something they want to offer in their schools.”

State lawmakers — saying students must understand biblical allusions in Shakespeare or America’s religious roots to be well-educated — passed a law last spring ordering the education board to adopt objectives, lesson plans and reading materials for the classes. While other states have offered similar courses, Georgia’s law is believed to be the first to actually mandate their creation.

Sadie Fields of the Georgia Christian Alliance, who lobbied for the law, said her group is working with school systems in South Georgia to implement the classes. “This is not proselytizing,” she said. “This is giving students the opportunity to study the best-selling book of all time.”

Although lawmakers said the Bible electives must be created, they left many of the details — including what topics to cover and who would be qualified to teach them — up to the education board.

According to the proposal being voted on today, students who take the classes would learn the influence of the Old and New Testaments on history, government, the arts, culture, law and current events. Class topics could include the history of the Kingdom of Israel, the poetry of the Old Testament, the life and parables of Jesus, and the life of his apostle, Paul.

But the board’s standards don’t tell schools what kinds of lessons will be appropriate, other than saying the Bible should be used as the “basic text” and suggesting that teachers read the new state law — which prohibits the courses from being used for indoctrination or devotional study.

Last year, Maggie Garrett, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to put more constitutional guidelines within the law. She said the board’s plan for the electives also lacks needed guidance.

“We still have the concern that once it’s implemented in the classroom it’s going to be done in an unconstitutional way,” she said.

Later this year, education board members will have to vote on whether to add the electives to the official state course list before school systems can receive funding for them.

Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday January 12, 2007.
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