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Teaching without preaching
Law aims for biblical literacy without proselytizing

By State Senator Craig Estes

"David and his Goliath of ambition." That is how one newspaper article during the 2007 session of the Texas Legislature was headlined regarding Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Without any knowledge or understanding of the biblical story behind David and Goliath, this headline and its intended impression has little or no meaning. Without a second thought, the reporter or editor who crafted the headline unwittingly demonstrated that the literary influence of the Bible extends well beyond Sunday mornings.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed a bill, which I was proud to sponsor through the Senate, to require public schools to offer a non-devotional, academic elective course in biblical text if such a course were requested by 15 students in grades nine through twelve12. This elective course is intended to promote biblical literacy to fully understand and appreciate our historical writings and contemporary references.

There is little serious debate that biblical literacy is important to understanding the underpinnings of Western civilization, American history and contemporary culture. American political, civil and literary writings and speeches make oblique and direct text references borrowed from the Bible. One academic study even found as many as 1,300 biblical references in the collected works of William Shakespeare.

The debate that has arisen over this issue does not center on the value of biblical literacy to a well-rounded education; but rather, on whether such a study can be achieved without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in ruling against prayer in public schools, left room for academic instruction so long as it is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education," to quote the late Justice Tom C. Clarke.

Therefore, it is permissible to study the story of David and Goliath with an understanding of the Jewish writer's conviction of God's role in that event, while not requiring a student to share in that same conviction.

This issue of indoctrination is not limited simply to courses in religious study.

Conservatives may be concerned whether political science teachers are indoctrinating liberal positions.

Free-market capitalists may be concerned with economics teachers instilling an appreciation for socialism or communism.

And, of course, many people of faith believe in religious explanations for human existence while the public education system provides only a nonreligious explanation.

We trust our teachers to teach their subjects in politics, economics and science in a manner that is well-rounded and without indoctrination.

There is no reason to believe a teacher entrusted with the task of teaching the text of the Bible would be any less professional in this education.

In an April 2007 cover story in Time magazine, the writer answers whether the Bible should be taught in public schools with a simple, "yes, but carefully."

The point of the article was to stress teaching without preaching. That is what distinguishes a Bible course as an elective in public school from a Bible class on Sunday morning.

Critics in opposition to teaching the Bible should join in being guardians against indoctrination and help shape the secular presentation rather than simply being a "Goliath" in opposition to biblical literacy.

I strongly support the constitutional prohibition against religious indoctrination as a citizen, parent and lawmaker; however, it should not become a tool to remove or bar an academic study of the best-selling and most influential book in world history from our public schools.

Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, is chairman of the Texas Senate's Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Coastal Resources.

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

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