Protecting Religious Freedom
Current Texas law regarding Bible courses
HB 1287 -- "Bible bill"
In 2007 the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1287 -- popularly known as the "Bible bill" -- which established guidelines for public school courses about the influence of the Bible in history and literature. The bill also put in place a number of important safeguards for protecting religious freedom in such classes.
Because of misleading claims made by Bible textbook vendors and religious right groups pushing Bible courses, many Texas school districts are unclear about their obligations under the new law. This confusion prompted the Texas Education Agency to release an "FAQ for Bible Literacy" in 2008 that explains in clear language how schools can comply with the new law. These instructions from TEA, which are based on Texas Attorney General’s Opinion No. GA-0657, correct two widely misunderstood elements of current Texas law:
|Does a school district have to offer a Bible course?||Answer: No|
|Does a school district have to offer the course if 15 or more students request it?||Answer: No|
According the Texas Education Agency, school districts can satisfy the statutory requirement to cover "religious literature" by simply incorporating "instruction regarding religious literature in existing history or literature courses."
Relevant Legislative History
House Bill 1287 has a complicated legislative history. The bill that was initially filed by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, was drastically amended during committee debate. House Public Education Committee members – without a single negative vote – added a number of safeguards to the bill to protect the religious freedom of students. Amendments adopted by the House Public Education Committee included:
- measures on teacher training and qualifications,
- requirements for curriculum standards and an actual textbook,
- stronger protections for the religious freedom of students and their families, and
- allowing local school officials to determine themselves whether their local communities support a class about the Bible rather than have the class mandated from Austin.
Rep. Chisum made an attempt to override the changes made in committee by reintroducing the original text of the bill on the floor of the House of Representatives. This prompted House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, to distribute a memo to House members clarifying the committee's intent. Chisum's attempt failed, and the amended version with all these safeguards passed the House unanimously – 145 - 0.
A similar effort in the Texas Senate to remove these safeguards also failed, and the House-passed version of the bill was also approved by the Senate, and subsequently signed into law by Gov. Perry.
In a final twist, religious right groups that lobbied against the amended version of the bill -- publicly maligning the common-sense safeguards incorporated in committee and arguing for Rep. Chisum's original version -- immediately pivoted upon final passage of the bill and claimed credit for the very law they fought so hard to prevent from passing.
Curriculum Issues (State Board of Education)
In 2008 the State Board of Education took up consideration of new curriculum standards for Bible courses. The Texas Freedom Network called on the state board to obey the will of the Legislature and establish clear, specific standards that local school districts could use to create appropriate Bible courses. This call was echoed in a letter dated May 16, 2008 prepared by House Education Chair Rob Eissler and committee members Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, and Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, making clear the Legislature's intent that the state board establish specific curriculum standards for public school Bible classes.
The SBOE majority rejected these legislative directives, instead approving a set of general, vague standards
that do not contain a shred of guidance about the specific content for Bible courses. In doing so, the board passed the buck to teachers and school districts to create these courses without any guidance.
On July 9, 2008, the Texas Attorney General's Office issued an advisory letter stating that general standards proposed by the state board would comply with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the letter also made clear that the AG's office could not ensure that specific courses developed using those general standards would be constitutional.