Under current state laws in Florida, public school districts are given the option of providing classes that include the “objective study” of the Bible. But a new statute would require public high schools to offer an elective course on the Bible and religion, and students would have the option to enroll. “It’s the book that prepares us for eternity, and there’s no other book that does that,” said the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Brad Drake. “So why not?”
Considering the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” the “why not” part could get a little complicated. Here’s a look.
Teaching or Preaching?
While the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been read to mandate the separation of church and state, that doesn’t mean that all laws referencing religion are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court set up a three-part test in Lemon v. Kurtzman to analyze legislation that concerns religion:
- The law must have a legitimate secular purpose.
- Must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion.
- Must not result in an excessive entanglement of government and religion.
Concerning the proposed Florida statute mandating optional Bible study courses, that could be a fine (though not necessarily impossible) line to tread. “Teach, don’t preach,” David Brockman a scholar at the Rice University Baker Institute’s Religion and Public Policy Program told the Tampa Bay Times, noting that the Bible literacy courses could be permissible as long as they did not encourage or discourage any religious views and remained academic and not devotional in nature.
Florida is far from the first to wade into to the legal morass of religion in schools. Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, Virginia, and West Virginia have all introduced or passed similar legislation recently. In fact, the Fourth Circuit recently ruled that West Virginia’s Bible In The School (BITS) program in West Virginia violated separation of church and state principles, and issued an injunction a few months ago. A California school district’s yoga classes, however, were deemed constitutional, because the curriculum doesn’t mention God, religion, or Hinduism.
Matters of religion, education, and the law can get complicated. If you’re wondering if a particular curriculum is legal, contact a local education attorney.