Teaching Religion In Missouri High School

Every year I follow the course of the Missouri legislature in their deliberations on where the state is going in the coming years. There are a few issues that I believe are worth investigating this early in the session. Many of the bills introduced deal with single or multiple word changes that make big differences. Like changing the word “may” to “shall,” making a law that was once optional now mandatory.

Because of recent endeavors by First Amendment advocates, I am quite interested in bills and resolutions that deal with church/state separation. The most notable this year’s is House Concurrent Resolution 13 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 13, which “[e]ncourages high schools to offer elective courses on the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.”

An HCR is a “is a resolution (a legislative measure) adopted by both houses… of legislature that lacks the force of law (is non-binding) and does not require the approval of the chief executive…

Now, this may seem a small issue for many. Evangelical Christianity is the primary religion in Missouri, representing over 35 percent of our population, according to the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. However, they are followed closely by the “Nones,” those who either have no affiliation or are non-believers, at 20-percent. Approximately six percent of our population are religious, but non-Christians (Jewish, Muslim, etc.).

The opening statement of HCR13 sets the groundwork for this resolution, claiming that “the Bible has been a cornerstone of Western civilization, its content permeating nearly all aspects of culture, manifesting itself most notably in literature, music, art, drama, public discourse, and philosophy…” It also has been the cornerstone for discrimination, tyrannical power, wars, slavery, and mass killings, things that the resolution does not address.

The HCR continues to claim that “forty studies have documented a correlation between improved school grades for children and the teaching of the biblical character of love, integrity, compassion, and self-discipline;” However, the resolution does not provide an example of these studies. Of the studies I was able to find, all were conducted by Christian organizations touting their own curriculum.

The one study find coordinates with the HCR with “a Gallup Poll survey on American teenagers’ knowledge of the Bible, found that American high school students are deficient in their academic knowledge of the Bible and that this deficiency is a limiting factor in their ability to study literature and to understand art, music, history, and culture…” This comes from a 2004 study as reported in an undated bibleliteracy.org report, one that appears to be a bit prejudice in nature.

In 2010 Pew study reported that “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”

HCR 13 further quotes Abington v. Schempp,  374 U.S. 203 (1963), and the majority decision written by Justice Tom Clark, that “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” However, Justice Clark continued noting that:

“Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.”

The SCOTUS ruling was clear, that “no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents.”

I do not have a problem if religion is taught as a comparative religion or philosophy class. I do have a problem when that religion is strictly Christianity from an Evangelical world view. It is a violation of the ruling in Abington v. Schempp by focusing solely on Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. I also see this as a “slippery slope” to teach religion as science.

As of this writing, HCR13 has not yet been assigned to a committee, but that may change soon. It is up to the citizens of Missouri to recognize that Christianity is not the sole religion of this state, which many are non-religious or non-believers and that forcing the teaching of the Christian Bible to high school students is a violation of the First Amendment.

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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