By MARK OPPENHEIMER
Published: March 1, 2013
It may be a little late for the holiday of Purim, but this coming Tuesday, in Eastland, Tex., Gay Hart will be baking hamantaschen — the traditional doughy, triangle-shaped pastries accented with dollops of prune, Nutella or some other delectable paste — for the mostly Protestant students in her class on the Bible at Eastland High School. Her curriculum also includes latke recipes for Hanukkah, “challah-days” and the Hebrew melody “Hava Nagila.”
Mrs. Hart, a Baptist, offers such tidbits of Jewish folk culture to help make her class, offered at a public school, welcoming to people of all beliefs. But according to a new study by Mark A. Chancey of Southern Methodist University, such efforts are not enough to make her class pass Constitutional muster.
Dr. Chancey asserts that Mrs. Hart’s class, while offering what he calls a “sympathetic appreciation” of differing points of view, is taught from an evangelical Christian perspective and probably runs afoul of the Constitution.
And Dr. Chancey says that Mrs. Hart, 77, is not alone in using a high school elective to pole-vault the wall between church and state. “Reading, Writing and Religion II,” released Jan. 16 by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog organization focused on the separation of church and state, is Dr. Chancey’s second study of public school Bible courses in Texas. He wrote the first in 2006, after becoming intrigued by a lawsuit in Odessa, Tex., brought on behalf of a Jewish student concerned about her public high school’s evangelical Bible curriculum.
That case was eventually settled, but in 2007, Texas passed a law requiring school districts to pay attention in their curriculums to religious literature, including the Bible, and its “impact on the history and literature of Western Civilization.” The requirement can be met through classes specifically on the Bible or through readings in other classes, like social studies or English.
There has long been disagreement about the legitimate place of religion in student-led and extracurricular activities, like after-school prayer groups, and at public school sporting events. But the new trend is to push the Bible into the heart of the instructional day. Since 2006, public schools in four other states — Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee — have passed laws similar to the one in Texas, and North Carolina is considering such a bill. South Carolina allows students to receive credit for Bible courses taken off campus, for example, at a church or a Christian college.
It is not illegal to read the Bible as part of a public school curriculum, but it should be “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education,” as the Supreme Court held in 1963. “The Court’s ruling,” Dr. Chancey writes in his new report, “means that Bible courses in public schools are constitutionally permissible as long as they are taught in an academic manner that does not cross the line into religious instruction or religiously biased presentation.”
Dr. Chancey read materials from 60 courses taught in Texas. Teachers may, he said, try to approach the Bible in an academic manner: as a work of literature that has influenced history, but that makes many claims incompatible with the best findings of science, archaeology and other scholarship. But many find it impossible, Dr. Chancey said, to offer a non-Christian perspective.
“So many people who love the Bible and read the Bible, especially in America, under the influence of Protestant sensibilities, read it as a historically accurate text,” he said. “For example, ‘The Exodus happened.’ ‘The miracle stories happened.’ A lot of school districts portray this straightforwardly as history, confidently.”
Many of those hired to teach Bible classes, Dr. Chancey points out, are themselves ministers, trained in spreading the Gospel. Marvin McHargue, a former dean of a Baptist college in Dallas, will retire this spring after 12 years teaching high school Bible in Duncanville, Tex. In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. McHargue said he never forced religion on his students.
“Creation?” Mr. McHargue asked. “Well, the Bible says God did it. It’s not for me to tell the kids they have to believe it. I have never used coercion.”
He uses the King James Version of the Bible, which is beautifully written and beloved of evangelicals, but a poor translation from Hebrew and Greek. He also uses workbooks from the Moody Bible Institute, a conservative evangelical seminary in Chicago.
On crucial points of theology, Mr. McHargue seemed content with a conservative Protestant interpretation. For example, when asked if he taught that the New Testament “fulfilled” the prophecies in the Jewish book of Isaiah, he said that he did.
“Well, it does, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. McHargue said.
But Jews, it was pointed out to him, do not believe that Isaiah’s teachings were fulfilled by Jesus. “In New York, they don’t,” he said, somewhat oddly.
Mrs. Hart, the hamantaschen maven of Eastland, said that Dr. Chancey, who never visited her class, got the wrong impression from the smattering of curricular materials she had sent him. For example, she said, she does show an evangelical documentary — but only a few seconds of it and only for some information on the Hebrew alphabet.
And when she talks about the Creation story in Genesis, she stresses that many religious people believe the six days are a metaphor for much longer epochs, and that many people do not believe the Bible story at all. She also said she uses many non-Christian readings, including the Koran.
Mrs. Hart is not, she said, just some small-town church lady.
“I go to First Baptist,” she said. “I wear a Pentecostal hairdo. I play the organ at the Episcopal church. When I could sing, I was the alto at Church of Christ. I have taught in a Catholic school. I am 77, and I am not a little old lady with a 15-year-old car that has 3,000 miles on it. I sky-dived last summer. I have a life, and I love this class.”
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