Should Iowa public school students have social study elective courses for Bible literacy? Northwest Iowa Representative Skyler Wheeler hopes so, and his bill to require local school boards to consider offering it passed a subcommittee today of the Iowa House.
House File 2031 would direct the State Board of Education to create course standards for Bible literacy classes that would be offered as elective courses. Local school boards would have the option of whether or not to implement that, and it would require a majority vote of those school boards to create them. As an elective, no student would be forced to take the class.
However, as many people and elected officials at the subcommittee meeting this afternoon pointed out, this would be the only elective course that the Board of Education is mandated to create and promote to local districts. Although Republicans insisted it was simply to better inform students about the United State’s founding and values, others warned that it was favoring one religion over another.
“To us, this is a clear attempt to teach Christianity,” cautioned ACLU lobbyist Daniel Zeno. “This would be the only specific course, and this specific course picked a specific religious text.”
“Why just this one book?” questioned Representative Art Staed, a Cedar Rapids Democrat. “It appears on the surface to put Christin beliefs into our curriculum in our schools.”
Many members of the Family Leader Council were on hand to support the bill, and Republican lawmakers voiced their backing of it.
“Studies show too few of our children have been exposed to the Bible and therefore lack the background to understand certain parts of our history, literacy, etc,” said committee member Representative Sandy Salmon, a Republican from Black Hawk County. “A solid grasp of the Bible, its major themes and stories, is essential to properly understanding our history and culture.”
Wheeler, the education subcommittee chair and a co-sponsor of the bill, argued that many schools and students aren’t even aware they could do courses on this subject – part of his intent with the bill is to make sure they know of the option.
“Many school districts don’t even know they can offer this,” Wheeler said. “Whether you believe the Bible is God’s word or you believe it’s a complete work of fiction, you cannot deny the impact its had on our culture, our history or our founding.”
But Democratic State Representative Mary Mascher of Iowa City worried that this could open the door to mandating the Board of Education create standards for all kinds of electives. She also mentioned that there’s absolutely nothing in current law that prohibits school districts from offering these kind of Bible literacy courses right now.
A representative from the education department noted that 111 school districts already offer some sort of introduction to religion, comparative religious studies or scripture elective courses, though only a small handful have types of courses like the one Wheeler was proposing. It would also cost the department an estimated $80,000 to create the suggested standards.
“If we go down that rabbit hole of having the department establish standards, criteria, education requirements for the teachers teaching the course for all electives, that is ridiculous,” Masher said. “That is cost prohibitive … If you’re going to have the Bible as literacy, that belongs in the language arts area, not in the social studies arena.”
Masher further warned that if the bill advances, she will offer many amendments for other required elective courses, including ones on the Koran, the Talmud and other subjects that represent more diverse parts of society. She questioned Wheeler whether he would support such a move.
“The Bible is different than the Koran,” Wheeler replied, saying he would not support such an amendment. “The idea of the bill is because of the specific impact the Bible has had on history of our history, our founding, our culture, that the Koran has not had that impact.”
The Republicans on the subcommittee decided to move the bill forward in the process to a full committee hearing.
by Pat Rynard