Bible Literacy in Public Schools: A Constitutional Issue Unlikely to be Resolved

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When contemplating the power of special interest groups in American politics, observers tend to focus on the influence of corporations and the political buying power of the monied class. As a result, the corruption of republican virtues through the elite machinations of campaign finance has become a central theme in “Democratic Socialist” rhetoric, with lobbying presented as the antithesis of liberal democracy.

However, while corporations may indeed exert their influence on elected officials in order to obtain more lenient taxes and less stringent regulations, another group both larger and stronger hides outside the gaze of mainstream attention waiting until the opportune moment to flex its political muscle. Evangelicals, a trans-denominational Protestant movement whose adherents’ beliefs center on the four principals of Conversionism (i.e., a “born-again” experience), Activism (i.e., proselytizing), Biblicism (i.e., viewing the Bible as the ultimate authority) and Crucicentrism (i.e., the redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Christ), have long been a silent yet robust force in U.S. politics.

Making up an estimated 25 percent of the population, evangelicals have a long history of influencing politicians and policymaking. As Frances Fitzgerald writes in The Evangelicals, their influence is often exerted outside the coverage of mainstream media and is quickly forgotten by those concerned with the coverage of special interests in politics. Most recently, their collective electoral force was channeled in supporting the 2016 campaign of Donald Trump, where promises of anti-abortion policies and the appointments of conservative judges were bartered for assistance at the polls.

With his 2020 re-election campaign in full swing, Trump has not shied away from advocating for Evangelist causes, whether in rhetoric such as his brief tangent lambasting state-specific abortion laws during the State of the Union address or through his favorite medium, Twitter. Indeed, in a recent tweet the incumbent, now notorious for engaging in adultery with a porn star, has shown support for a controversial policy trend among conservative states of introducing the study of the Old and New Testaments in public schools.

Current State Laws and Opposition to These Statutes

Since Kentucky passed a “Bible Literacy” law in 2017 “requir[ing] the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to establish an elective social studies course […] and […] to permit a school council to offer an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, [and] the New Testament,” a trend has swept across Bible Belt states to pass laws promoting the study of the Bible in public schools. As of February 2019, at least six other states have passed or introduced legislation meant to institute Bible Literacy in their public school classrooms. Oscillating between allowing schools to offer extra-curricular Bible Study Programs, permitting public secondary educational institutions to introduce Bible Literacy courses for school credit and “allow[ing] parents to remove students from school up to an hour a week for private religious education,” these policies advocate for a rigorous Biblical education as a means of acquainting students with ostensible American values.

While seemingly innocuous, many liberal politicians and civil rights organizations claim that these efforts undermine the Constitutional provisions of the First Amendment meant to legally separate the Church and the State. Labeled as a “coordinated effort by evangelical political groups,” these measures are criticized for emphasizing Christian values in the public school system and for using government institutions to proselytize the Protestant religion (extracurriculars focusing on the scriptures of other religions being conspicuously absent). Rather than emphasizing American values, they argue that the focus on Christianity undermines the republican values America is built on, especially the doctrine of secularism and the country’s reputation of religious tolerance.

Constitutional Issues Involved

Aside from the moral arguments, many critics claim that these new laws are also Constitutional violations, specifically of the First Amendment’s establishment clause which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” As per the Incorporation doctrine, the establishment clause applies to the states, making any attempt by the United States’s political subdivisions to advocate for a “state religion” unconstitutional. Since the public school system is seen as the government’s most direct and perennial way to influence the developing minds of future American voters, emphasis has been made on separating religion not only from the state proper but also from state-funded education.

Governed by judicial precedent, the imbibing of religion within the public school system has had a long and confusing history that has seen the progressive erosion of religious practices within the confines of secondary education. Cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) banning recitals and readings of the Bible in classrooms and later rulings such as Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) prohibiting the broadcasting of pre-game prayers illustrate the Court’s historic trend of moving away from sanctioning the infusion of religion into education that dominated pre-Twentieth Century American life.

Concerning programs designed to explicitly study the text of the Bible in schools however, little to no substantive case law exists. The closest precedent available is that set in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) which establishes a three-pronged test in order to determine whether or not legislation aimed at religious imposition violates the establishment clause. As per the test, a law can pass constitutional muster if “(1) the primary purpose of the assistance is secular, (2) the assistance neither promotes nor inhibits religion and (3) there is no excessive entanglement between church and state.” Based off of this understanding, many critics assert that Bible Literacy laws such as Kentucky’s do not satisfactorily pass the Kurtzman test since the curriculum of the classes it supports promote proselytizing and require religious devotion.

Likely Direction of Possible Court Challenges

While the typical recourse to unconstitutional legislation at the state level would be to bring suit in Court, questions of Constitutionality are not always straightforward matters. In order to successfully bring suit, the plaintiff must have standing, that is, be able to demonstrate that it has (or imminently will) suffered an injury, that said injury is caused directly or indirectly by the alleged unconstitutional legislation, and that the Court is able to redress the injury (i.e., by formally declaring the statute unconstitutional). The issue with many challenges to the Constitutionality of existing laws, especially those concerning the First Amendment’s establishment clause, is that the “victims” are either not readily distinguishable, are unaware that they are themselves victims, lack the proper information and means to seek legal counsel or bring the suit to Court themselves or do not even consider themselves victims.

Concerning the Bible Literacy laws, considering that some have been on the books for over two years and that no significant Court process has been initiated despite scathing reports by the ACLU and other organizations, attests to the difficulty of prosecuting such cases. As such, if these programs are to remain optional for children and largely confined to Bible Belt states that have an Evangelical cultural preponderance, it is unlikely that any significant challenges will be brought against these statutes.

In any case, should a challenge make its way to the Supreme Court, its outcome may be difficult to anticipate. While the Court has struck down religious public-school programs in the past, it seems to have softened its stance on religious issues (e.g., ruling that Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was not religious) and may rule favorably in a statute that can be read as an optional religious infiltration that is unlikely to cause inadvertent victims. Furthermore, as hoped by Evangelicals, Trump followed through on his promises to pack federal courts with conservatives and has appointed two deeply religious Supreme Court Justices to the High Bench. With this conservative tilt, it is likely that the Supreme Court would vote on ideological lines, a scenario that would not bode well for defenders of secular public education.