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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Shoving Religion Down Students' Throats?

The AP carried this story of a religious watchdog group, the Texas Freedom Network, that held a press conference in Austin on Monday, August 1. TFN condemned a Bible study curriculum that has been picked up by 300+ high schools across the country, including some Texas high schools. In May TFN had asked SMU biblical studies professor Mark A. Chancey to review the material and he pronounced it sectarian in his report (pdf file here). Chancey's four major points of contention against the curriculum are:

1. The Bible is explicitly characterized as inspired by God.
2. Discussions of science are based on the claims of biblical creationists.
3. Jesus is presented as fulfilling “Old Testament” prophecy.
4. Archaeological findings are cited as support for claims of the Bible’s complete historical accuracy.

I'm sympathetic to #2 if the curriculum teaches creation science. It seems to me a curriculum about the Bible for American high school students could find plenty to teach without delving into questions of science.

And I could be a somewhat sympathetic to contention #4 pending an explanation of what Chancey means by "complete historical accuracy." If the word "complete" were removed I would disagree with Chancey on #4 as much as I do #1 and #3. Does the Bible explicitly state that it is the Word of God? Do the Gospels (particularly Matthew), Acts and Epistles not labor the point that Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy? And do not many archaeological findings support the Bible's historical accounts? If the Bible says these things about itself, why is that sectarian to read and discuss this? Why not have robust Socratic class discussions of these matters.

A prima facie reading of the Bible as literature does not strike me as sectarian, especially when (as Chancey fairly documents in his report) the authors of the curriculum take pains to state that the curriculum should not be used to impose beliefs on students and present points explicitly from different religions' views.

Here's the quote that motivated me to post. Perhaps it's taken out of context so I'm hopeful of further information that helps vindicate Pastor Ragan Courtney of The Sanctuary, who spoke in support of the TFN's condemnation of the curriculum.

"“No public school student should have to have a particular religious belief forced upon them,” the Rev. Ragan Courtney, pastor of The Sanctuary, a Baptist congregation in Austin, said at a news conference held by Texas Freedom Network."

I completely agree, no student should have have a particular religious belief forced on him or her (not "them").

But, I don't have a problem with a public school student being taught something he or she doesn't believe. For example, if creationist students are in a public high school, I think they should be required to learn what Darwinism is. Yes, I said 'required,' unless the parent explicitly requests his/her child be removed from that class.

And if students live in an area where the inhabitants are predominately Muslim and if those Muslim voters elect school board members who want to teach a Muslim curriculum, I say let the people decide. If the people in an area are secularists and they want their school free of religion, I say let the people decide.

I'm not a supporter of the curriculum; from what I've read about it I'm ambivalent. But, if the Odessa, TX residents petitioned in large numbers for this curriculum, let the people decide.

I completely disagree with the Supreme Court decisions that have overturned 150 years of precendent in terms of understanding the First Amendment. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." States and local governments can. In the last 50 years the SCOTUS has infringed upon state and local governments and decreed that they also, along with Congress, cannot be involved in religion. That is simply not what the First Amendment says.

But we're still not yet to the rub.

Once more time with Ragan Courtney's quote: “No public school student should have to have a particular religious belief forced upon them..."

This is not standard curriculum for students. This curriculum is not compulsory. The much denigrated curriculum is an elective. If students don't want to take the class, they can elect another class. It's an elective. We're talking choice. Freedom.

What is a reader or observer to make of Courtney? Was he willfully misrepresenting the facts in his press conference remarks? Was he nervous and simply mis-spoke? Or was he simply ignorant of the fact that elective does not equal forced?

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