Bill Could Mandate Bible Electives in Florida’s Public High Schools
A bill in the Florida legislature would make Bible classes mandatory electives in public high schools. The original bill filed in the House during the last legislative session died in committee. But now with a companion bill in the Senate-supporters say it might have a better shot of passing the second time around.
Representative Kim Daniels’ bill requires schools to offer electives in the Old and New Testaments for grades 9 through 12.
Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat, has the support of Republican Senator Dennis Baxley. He filed a companion bill in the Senate.
“It’s a foundational document that visits history, philosophy, government, ethics, wisdom.”
Baxley says the class would be an objective study of the Bible that neither endorses nor critiques any religion.
“You don’t have to study it as a scriptural guide or the way I might use it as a believer of the Christian faith.”
Representative Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat, opposes the bill.
He says a course that only teaches about one religion-Christianity-is already biased.
“The problem becomes when we are forcing our beliefs on other people. That’s not right, that’s not fair.”
Jones wants public schools to continue to offer the world religions classes that are allowed under Florida law especially after recent hate crimes at a synagogue in New York and at a church in Texas.
“I think us bringing in a sense of respect for others’ religion as I repeat is the direction that we as legislators should be working towards.”
John Stemberger of the conservative lobbying group Florida Family Policy Council says it might be too early to tell whether the bill will be successful.
“So I don’t know where leadership is at on the bill. I would think they wouldn’t be opposed to it. The question would be priority.”
Stemberger says a comparative study of Christianity with other religions might still be possible under the bill.
But he says the Bible would still be the focus as it’s foundational to an understanding of the American experience.
“There are scriptures, Biblical passages everywhere in these documents showing that the Bible is a significant book to our founding.”
Stemberger says students with strong objections can simply opt out of taking the class. David Williamson says it’s not that simple.
“It’s going to send the clear message that Christianity is the preferred religion. Because this is the one being taught.”
Williamson is the co-founder of Central Florida Freethought Community, a group advocating for a separation of church and state. He says the class could divide students along religious lines.
“Any type of opportunity that kids have to ostracize one another is a potential problem. Not always but it can be.”
Williamson says designing a new curriculum and hiring teachers will take resources away from other electives.
Florida isn’t the only state considering legislation that would put Bible studies in public schools. Five other states have introduced similar bills.
Religious expert Kandy Queen-Sutherland, who teaches the Bible at Stetson University, says there’s been a push to get Bible studies into public schools since the 70s.
“There is this kind of idea that somehow we’ve lost our way as a country. We’re no longer a quote Christian nation as if that was in fact what we were in the beginning.”
Queen-Sutherland says even if the legislation passes-it doesn’t mean it won’t go uncontested.
She says it brings into question one of the country’s founding principles-that of religious liberty.
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