Missouri bill on Parson’s desk would allow public schools to teach electives on the Bible

In the waning hours of the legislative session, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill long-sought by a pair of Christian lawmakers that would allow public schools to offer elective courses on the Bible.

The legislation, filed by state Sen. Karla May, a St. Louis Democrat, allows public schools and public charter schools to offer elective social studies classes including but not limited to the “Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament of the Bible” and the “New Testament of the Bible.”

It passed the Missouri Senate on a unanimous vote of 31 to 0 in March. And then, with just more than an hour left in this year’s session and with little debate, the House voted 108 to 30 last week to send the bill to Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

May, a nondenominational Christian, told The Star that she wants people to be able to study these religious texts from a cultural and historical perspective.

“It’s one of the greatest history books that I’ve ever read,” May said, referring to the Bible. “I wanted other people who are, you know, receiving faith to see it in a different way. You get me? Culturally, language, styles of clothes. How did it impact the living conditions of people? You know, I want it to be not a myth.”

But while the bill received support from both parties this year and didn’t drum up too much controversy, some religious leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri say it singles out one religion over others.

It states that schools cannot violate state or federal laws or favor or show hostility toward any religion. However, some critics worry it may cause schools to violate the spirit of separation of church and state outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Tori Schafer, deputy director for policy and campaigns at the ACLU of Missouri, said that there are acceptable ways to teach about the Bible in public schools, such as a comparative religion class. However, it’s difficult to do so in a way that’s in line with the U.S. Constitution, especially when a course focuses solely on one faith or religious text, she said.

“Whether unintentionally or intentionally, courses focusing on one faith or religious text create conditions ripe for proselytizing and official promotion of religious beliefs,” Schafer said in a statement.

When asked what the bill is referring to with the “Hebrew Scriptures,” May said it refers to the Five Books of Moses, a term for the first five books of the Bible also known as the Torah.

Doug Alpert, the rabbi at Kansas City-based Congregation Kol Ami, said while the bill appeared to be attempting to be inclusive to Jewish people, it did not specifically include references to other religions such as Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. He said he wondered why lawmakers felt the need to pass the bill if these courses are already allowed under state and federal laws.

“I don’t think it’s the legislature’s place to try and state specifically that this is okay,” he said. “It sounds like they’re doing the courts’ job.”

May pushed back on criticism of the bill, pointing to the provision that classes would not have to be limited to these specific books.

She said that because the class is an elective, students would be able to request the course from their schools. The goal of her legislation, she said, is to teach these religious texts from an educational perspective instead of lessons on morality and sin.

But state Rep. Ben Baker, a Neosho Republican who has filed similar legislation, has touted the legislation as a “Bible Bill” on Twitter.

“Now students in our Missouri Public Schools can have the Bible as a full elective in History classes!” Baker wrote on Twitter last week. “God works in mysterious ways!”

Baker did not respond to a request for comment.

Others, including some lawmakers who voted in favor of the legislation, say the bill won’t have a major impact and that schools are already allowed to teach these classes.

“I know that schools can do it anyway. It doesn’t mandate that schools offer those courses. It just allows that as an option for an elective but that was pretty standard,” said state Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat and a former middle school teacher. “I’ve not heard anything in support or opposition from my school districts, which I think reaffirms for me that this probably isn’t going to make much of a difference.”

At least two Kansas City area school districts do not have immediate plans to change their curriculum if Parson signs the bill into law.

Talia Evans, a spokesperson for the Lee’s Summit School District, said the district approves its course catalogs in the fall and new courses would be discussed next fall. Katie Woolf, a spokesperson for the Blue Springs School District, said the district did not have any current plans to change its curriculum or add classes.

Brian Kaylor, the president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way, a Missouri-based Christian media company who testified against the bill earlier this year, said he felt the bill was problematic because it was promoting one faith text over others.

He said it could cause confusion because there are numerous interpretations of the Bible from different denominations and religions. Kaylor that if lawmakers wanted to teach a class that shows how religion has impacted Missouri history, the Book of Mormon, which has deep ties to Missouri, should be included.

“It could create some problems for students who find that their religious tradition isn’t respected or treated as the standard text in this class,” he said.