State ACLU opposes education bills

A spokesman for North Dakota United, the state teachers union, said last week that the association has not taken an official position regarding Senate Bill 2136, which would require school districts to offer as an elective “one-half unit of the Old Testament of the Bible or the New Testament of the Bible, or one-half unit of instruction covering both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.”

The spokesman said its members are keeping an eye on the progress of the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, Sen. Jordan Kannianen, R-Stanley, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, and Rep. Aaron McWilliams, R-Hillsboro.

Jordan Cooper, who teaches social studies and government at South Prairie, said he is interested in the prospect of a Bible class, but would like to know more about who would be qualified to teach it and the curriculum required for such a class.

“I first heard about this bill a couple weeks ago from my assistant basketball coach who is also a local minister here in Minot,” Cooper said in an email. “I have taught World History now for 10 years at the high school level and was very interested in the idea of adding an elective that would offer the opportunity to explore biblical history in depth. There are a few questions that I would have concerning the curriculum and who is qualified to teach it. Otherwise, I think it is a great opportunity for our students to learn about how much of our morals and values are embedded in the allegorical stories of the Bible. It is the most printed book in history for a reason.

“The hot button issue with this bill will obviously be that we need to maintain the separation of church and state which I agree with but I don’t think that should be the issue. The Bible is rich with the power of story telling. Regardless of your religious affiliation, if any, students will be able to relate with the stories and can learn so much about life and ancient wisdom that is still very relevant today. It’s no secret that atheism and agnosticism is on the rise in the U.S., and that may be for many reasons, but I think many of them dismiss religion for its dogma and that is unfortunate because there is so much wisdom in those writings that has nothing to do with the divine element. It teaches individual responsibility, truth, and true meaning. The Bible is essentially a collection of ancient knowledge that was assembled over thousands of years. A strong argument could be made that it has some of the most influential social and cultural stories of mankind. In the U.S. we have built a great society around the ideas of the sovereignty of the individual and not the state. The New Testament for example lays out the rational that we should not try to pursue material possessions and the perfect government/state, we should instead pursue the salvation of the individual through being truthful and adopting responsibility.

“If I were teaching this class, I would stay away from historical perspectives because they can be debated, I would stay away from scientific claims because they can be debated. Instead, I would try to convey the stories and the lessons embedded within them through a modern lens so that the students benefit psychologically. Again, regardless of your religion or lack thereof, the students would get the benefit from the book’s life lessons which will probably lead to more emotional fulfillment. With mental health issues and depression rates on the rise in the United States, it’s my opinion that the students and their families could benefit from the ancient wisdom of these texts.”

The North Dakota American Civil Liberties Union has called the bill “blatantly unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court has recognized that the government must exercise particular care in separating church and state in public schools,” said state ACLU executive director Heather Smith, in a statement on Jan. 9 “Every student, regardless of their faith, should feel safe and welcome in our public schools. When school officials promote religion generally, or signal their preference for one faith, it sends an exclusionary and destructive message that students who follow other religions, or no religion at all, don’t belong,” she said. “To withstand constitutional requirements, Bible curriculum in public schools must be neutral and non-devotional, and classes cannot be used to promote one particular religion. Senate Bill 2136, which explicitly provides for the teaching of the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible, does not do this. Attempting to implement a Bible curriculum like this is very likely to expose a school district to litigation.”

The ACLU has also expressed its opposition to another education-related bill, House Bill 1538, which would have given teachers the “freedom to teach strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories and controversies.” The ACLU objected to the bill because it claimed it was an attempt to promote creationism in schools and oppose evolution.

“House Bill 1538 is the latest line of attack against evolution in a longstanding campaign waged by certain religious interests to promote creationism in the public schools,” said Smith in a statement issued Jan. 18. “Under the pretext of fostering academic exploration and critical thinking, this legislation would authorize teachers to present lessons regarding so-called scientific controversies.

“No one doubts the value and importance of critical thinking to any serious course of scientific study, but legislation like House Bill 1536 is not aimed at developing students’ critical thinking skills. Rather, it seeks to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs regarding evolution and the origin of life as pseudo-science and inject them into their science classes. The best way to instill critical thinking skills in our students is by implementing and following established science curriculum that is already geared toward this very aim and has been written and tested by qualified educational specialists. This effort to inject this false controversy into public school science curriculum will only harm North Dakota students.”

Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, said Tuesday in an email that he has withdrawn the bill for this session.

“HB 1538 is an excellent bill,” he said in the email. “It gives true freedom for scientific theories and controversies to be discussed critically. Thus the words “strengths and weaknesses“. The fact that the ACLU is in opposition confirms that this is a good bill. It has already passed in other states. It does not force any views to be taught but It does give support for science to be true science and good teachers to be good teachers. I have withdrawn the bill for this session.”

House Bill 1538 was sponsored by Hoverson, Rep. Daniel Johnston, R-Kathryn; Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo; Rep. Bob Paulson, R-Minot; Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson.