Oklahoma State Superintendent Requires Public Schools to Teach the Bible

Oklahoma’s state superintendent on Thursday ordered all public schools to teach the Bible, including the Ten Commandments. This extraordinary measure blurs the line between religious education and public education.

Superintendent Ryan Walters, a Republican, described the Bible as an “indispensable historical and cultural touchstone” and said it should be taught at certain, unspecified levels.

The move comes a week after Louisiana became the first state to require public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom, a move that was quickly challenged in court.

Oklahoma’s directive could also be challenged and is likely to spark a new debate over the role of religion in public schools.

The efforts to bring religious texts into the classroom reflect a growing national movement among conservatives — particularly Catholics and evangelicals who oppose abortion, transgender rights and what they see as liberal school curricula — to openly embrace the idea that American democracy should be grounded in their Christian values.

That movement won a major victory by overturning Roe v. Wade two years ago, and its supporters see ending abortion as just a starting point in a broader campaign to preserve and expand the presence of their Christian values ​​in American life . Many conservative Christians see schools as a frontline of their battle as they seek to shape the next generation.

In his announcement on Thursday, Mr. Walters called the Bible “a necessary historical document to teach our children about the history of this country, to gain a full understanding of Western civilization, to gain an understanding of the foundation of our legal system.”

“Every teacher, every classroom in the state will have a Bible in the classroom and will teach from the Bible in the classroom,” he said.

In some states, the Bible is taught as part of specific lessons, and is generally seen as permissible as a historical text, or alongside other religious texts or literature. Few other states, if any, have such a broad requirement.

In a memo to school district leaders, Mr. Walters did not immediately clarify what the Biblical instruction would entail.

He suggested that the Bible and the Ten Commandments could be referred to “as an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, and the like.” And he said they could be studied “because of their substantial influence on our nation’s founders and the fundamental principles of our Constitution.” That seems to point to a core tenet of conservative Christian political ideology, namely, that the nation was founded specifically to be a Christian nation — an idea disputed by many mainstream historians.

Stacey Woolley, the chairwoman of the Tulsa Public Schools Board, which is threatening to take over from Walters, said she had not received specific guidance on the curriculum but believed it would be “inappropriate” to teach students of different faiths and backgrounds only passages from the Bible without also including other religious texts.

Whether Mr. Walters has the authority under Oklahoma law to issue such a sweeping directive for all public schools is unclear, said Andrew C. Spiropoulos, a constitutional law professor at Oklahoma City University School of Law, who described the mandate as “pushing the envelope.”

In general, he said, courts have held that the Bible may be taught in public schools alongside other religious texts, or in combination with other literary works.

“If we consider it as a stand-alone proposal, it could be legally problematic,” Mr Spiropoulos said.

Mr. Walters, a 39-year-old conservative Christian and former history teacher, has emerged as a bombastic figure in Oklahoma politics and a unapologetic culture warrior in education. He has been at the center of controversies over gender identity, teaching race and other current issues, and has sometimes gone on the offensive against school districts and individual teachers.

Mr. Walters has also expressed support for prayer in public schools and backed an effort to establish the nation’s first religious charter school in Oklahoma. (Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked that school, in a case that could go before the U.S. Supreme Court.)

His directive on the Bible was immediately opposed by groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They also filed a lawsuit to stop the private religious school in Oklahoma.

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United, said the group was “ready to intervene and protect all Oklahoma public school children and their families from constitutional violations of their religious freedom.”

“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” she said, adding, “Public schools can teach about religion, but they cannot preach any religion.”

Ms. Laser’s group is also challenging Louisiana’s Ten Commandments measure, which requires the commandments to be posted in every classroom in every public elementary, high school and college, as well as in public lecture halls. It will also include a statement saying that the Ten Commandments have been a “prominent part of American public education for nearly three centuries,” echoing proponents’ contention that the Ten Commandments are not purely a religious text but also a historical document.

Groups like the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, which was founded in 2020 to promote legislation that aligns with their Christian values, have worked with lawmakers to pass several recent measures. Specifically, the NACL worked with lawmakers in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas to pass bills allowing public schools to hire chaplains.

The country appears divided over religious instruction in public schools, according to a survey last year by The Associated Press and NORC, an independent research institute at the University of Chicago. Of those surveyed, 37 percent said there was too little religion, 31 percent said there was enough, and 31 percent said there was too much.

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