A House committee on Monday advanced a proposal that would create an elective high school course about the Bible and its role in Western culture.
The bill asks the state Board of Education to design a course called "The Bible and its Influence on Western Culture."
Republican Rep. Terri Proud of Tucson, the measure's sponsor, said the class would not be forced on schools or students, and teachers could face consequences if they violate laws separating church and state.
Proud said students would benefit from the course because biblical references are everywhere. Proud has said teachers in her district told her they have a fear of mentioning Christianity or the Bible in the classroom, and she hopes the law will give them some guidance.
Critics say the proposal is unnecessary and divisive and could be unconstitutional because it "sets aside Christianity as a preferred religion."
Public schools across the country have generally avoided Bible courses, but hundreds offer such classes as electives. At least five other states have passed legislation similar to the Arizona proposal.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned ceremonial Bible readings in schools but said "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" so long as material is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."
The Arizona bill stipulates that the course maintain "religious neutrality," and requires a legal review for the course to ensure the curriculum doesn't conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
Proud said any teacher could face consequences if they stray into unconstitutional grounds. But the bill also includes a clause that leaves teachers immune from civil liability or disciplinary action, as long as the teacher was teaching the material from a historical context and "in good faith."
The measure passed on along party lines, with Republicans in favor.
Critics testified at the House Education Committee hearing that the bill could open the state and schools up to lawsuits and would make it very easy for teachers to stray into an area that violates the First Amendment rights of students.