Kentuckians rank 45th in high school attainment, so lawmakers authorize a Bible class for public schools

Course would be optional for school districts, an elective for students

Kentucky promoters like to talk about bourbon and racehorses while sidestepping the state’s longstanding failure to see its young people through high school. So while American students fall further and further behind their global counterparts in math and science, the Kentucky Legislature has decided to make the public high school curriculum more competitive than ever — by adding a Bible course in public high schools.

Bills introduced in both the Senate and the House call for identical courses of action. If enacted, the legislation would require the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the “Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.” Students would be taught “biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy.” Actually offering the course would fall to individual school boards.

Kentucky ranks 45th among states in the percentage of 25-year-olds and older who have completed high school — 84.2 percent, according to the last U.S. Census Bureau survey. If they finish high school, Kentucky students are more middle-of-the-pack nationally in average SAT and ACT scores, but employers prefer excellence over mediocrity, and the demand — and pay — is high for students who go on to get STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees. That fact isn’t lost on international students in U.S. colleges: In the 2015-16 school year, their number breached the 1 million mark for the first time.

But while the rest of the world is catching on to American-style career ladder-climbing, Kentucky legislators want their high school students to develop more world perspective.

“You would be remiss if you didn’t include the Bible’s impact on the law and the history of our country and where we are in the world today,” said state Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat from Grayson, Ky., and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The Kentucky House got first crack at the proposal and passed it last Thursday by a God-fearing 80-to-14 margin. The Senate bill passed muster with the Education Committee, but hadn’t made it onto the Senate floor as of Friday.

All seven Republican House members from Northern Kentucky voted for the bill Thursday. Of the two Democrats in the region, Arnold Simpson of Covington voted against it, while Dennis Keene of Wilder abstained.

Several critics of the measure said Bible instruction in public schools will lead to lawsuits citing the separation of church and state. Jim Helton, president of Tri-State Freethinkers, an activist group with about 1,900 members, says the bill is a bald attempt to add education about one religion, to the exclusion of others, in secular schools.

“It singles out and gives favor to Christianity, which goes against the First Amendment,” he says. “If you were a Jewish child, or a Muslim child, how would you feel if only Christianity is taught? If they want to teach the Bible, do it in Sunday school, do it in church. It’s perfectly fine there. But not in a public school.”

In Kentucky, though, the measure is encountering nothing but tailwinds. After all, Gov. Matt Bevin declared 2017 the “Year of the Bible.”

The American Civil Liberties Union aims to keep close tabs on the state’s implementation of Bible classes. Along with course descriptions, the ACLU will pay close attention to actual instruction, such as whether the course teaches the Bible or about the Bible.

“It must be made crystal clear, the Bible may be taught in public school, but only for its historical, cultural or literary value and never in a devotional, celebratory or doctrinal manner, or in such a way that encourages acceptance of the Bible as a religious document,” said Kate Miller, advocacy director for the ACLU of Kentucky, before the Senate Education Committee two weeks ago.

(Jim Helton's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.)

CONTACT JAMES McNAIR: j[email protected], 513-914-2736, @jmacnews on Twitter

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