Divisive order showcases Oklahoma's push for more Christian religion in schools (2024)

Dale Denwalt,Jordan GerardThe Oklahoman

Ryan Walters' directive that Oklahoma public schools should teach from the Bible raised more questions than it answered.

After an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting last week, the state schools superintendent huddled with reporters to give more clarity on his plan. He instead offered very little detail, leaving school administrators, educators, parents, legislators and the taxpaying public to speculate about how this might play out in the classroom when school returns in August.

Put simply, Walters wants a Bible in every public school classroom, and for every teacher to give lessons from the Bible. He says the book is important to understanding American history and the religious motivations of those who helped build the nation.

"So what you're going to see is ― we have clarity in state law that talk (sic) about religion and its impact on the country," he said last Thursday. "We are going to clarify that with the new standards we'll be rolling out soon. And we are going to be very explicit that that means teaching stories from the Bible in grade levels; that means teaching its influence on American history. It will all be in a historical context."

What to know: Oklahoma superintendent demands Bibles in all public school classrooms

When asked which grade levels this would affect, how teachers would teach the Bible and exactly which version of the Bible would be mandated, Walters frequently deferred specifics to some future time when the Oklahoma State Department of Education would issue more guidance. A spokesman for department did not answer additional questions about the plan.

Oklahoma's push for religion in public schools

The Oklahoman reached out to several school districts after Walters sent the memo, but none have responded to questions.

The move is the latest in a series of efforts that blur the line between religion and the state's mandate to provide an education to every child. Oklahoma’s lawmakers tried but failed to finalize a bill this year that would haveallowed public schools to hire religious chaplainsor welcome them as volunteers to counsel students, as long as they didn’t attempt to proselytize. The bill stalled in the final days of the session.

In February, the State Textbook Committee said it would begin evaluating textbooks on whether they neglect the importance of religion in preserving American liberties.

And several state leaders have shepherded the approval of a taxpayer-funded religious school that was recently struck down by Oklahoma's high court. Supporters of St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School hope the issue will be settled by the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court.

"Walters is strong among voters who would identify themselves as very conservative, and these are voters who like Trump and want Oklahoma to be like Texas in that our courts are a battleground to advance conservative values nationally," said Donelle Harder, a political consultant who previously served as senior adviser to Gov. Kevin Stitt. "If (Walters') political strategy is to fight in the courts, he will be judged long term by whether his legal cases were viable in the higher courts and if it spurred legislative changes. Only time will tell, and history will judge."

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, a Democrat from Norman and member of the House Common Education Committee, taught eighth-grade U.S. history and 10th-grade world history before being elected. He said talking about major world religions is already in the education standards and he has used the Bible just as a visual aid to compare and contrast to other religions, but "didn’t dig into it."

At first blush, Rosecrants said he thought it was another one of Walters’ inflammatory attention-getters, but the fact that it seems mandated is what caught his attention. He questioned how it would be enforced.

“The word ‘mandate’ changes everything about the whole statement and really, just the strong wording in the memo itself, ‘strict compliance,’ all (this) very strong language with not really any way to enforce it and a real lack of details,” he said. “It’s an ongoing cycle.”

State Sen. Carri Hicks, a Democrat from Oklahoma City and teacher of 10 years, said the memo is disingenuous, especially given the current laws that intersect religion and public education.

Existing laws on the books include a minute of silence for students to exercise their individual choice for reflection, meditation, prayer or other silent activity, an elective class that uses the Bible as the primary text, voluntary prayer and reading of Holy Scriptures. The latest addition is a law that allows students religious release time during the school day.

“We don’t even have proper curriculum supports for the current expectation. Not every student in our class has a textbook and yet now we’re being directed to use a religious text and document in the classroom,” Hicks said. “I think everybody’s just kind of scratching their heads about why this seems to be the top priority of the department.”

Rosecrants added there should be less focus on test scores and more focus on helping kids learn better.

“He’s (Walters) trying to change it in a way that’s not going to help kids in any way, shape or form,” Rosecrants said. “He’s doing the things now just to help himself and have his star rise further in far-right circles. It’s blatant.”

GOP state Sen. Dusty Deevers, who holds a master’s degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he was pleased with Walters' memo and looks forward to the standards and guidelines from the department.

Deevers said he heard from teachers and parents in his district who questioned how it would be taught and whether the teaching of doctrine and theology was mandated. His understanding of the directive is that doctrine and theology will not be taught from a denominational perspective, and instead, it will focus on the Bible’s influence on world history and western civilization and the United States.

“When we talk about the separation of church and state, we are not talking about the separation of truth and state,” he said. “The truth is that the Bible is fundamental to the society in which we live. It really is one of the many reasons why it ought to be included in the Oklahoma curriculum.”

Religious leaders divided on Walters' memo

The Rev. Stephen Hamilton, pastor of St. Monica Catholic Church in Edmond, was a member of an independent advisory committee that presented Ryan Walters with several recommendations last year, including the recommendation that copies of the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom.

Hamilton said the group, called the Oklahoma Advisory Committee on Founding Principles, met several times to come up with those recommendations and they have not met since their final recommendations were submitted to the State Board of Education last year.

He weighed in on Walters' memo to school superintendents, noting that he was sharing his personal opinion on the matter and not as part of the advisory committee. Hamilton said he understands there are legitimate questions people have about how the First Amendment is interpreted.

"We have a society that's become very secular, and any time religion is brought up, it jumps to what I will call kind of a knee-jerk reaction about the establishment clause. But it doesn't seem to give equal weight to what's also in the First Amendment, which is the free exercise clause," Hamilton said.

The establishment clause refers to the line in the First Amendment that says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and has generally been interpreted as prohibiting government from favoring one religion over others. It's often used as evidence that the Founding Fathers wanted a separation between activities of church and state.

The next line of the First Amendment adds ― "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"And so, I think that what we have to keep in mind is that there is a historical value in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the Judeo Christian faith, how our nation was founded, and that there's a value studying that from a historical perspective, irrespective of any current students' faith."

The religious world is not united around Walters' politics, however.

Bishop James G. Nunn, Episcopal leader for the Oklahoma Area of The United Methodist Church, said his church's principles include a rejection of state-controlled church activities, and vice versa.

"The reported motivation for using the Bible is to teach the 'core values and historical context of our country.' This parameter potentially creates a conflict between church and state as it may assume a single core value, historical context or biblical perspective as its educational norm," Nunn said.

The Jewish Federation of Tulsa Community Relations Committee said enforcing the presence of the Christian Bible in public school classrooms not only goes against the spirit of religious neutrality protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but also imposes a specific interpretation that does not encompass the diversity of religious beliefs in our society.

"At a time when Oklahoma faces significant educational challenges, ranking 49th nationally, this directive distracts from addressing crucial education needs. Furthermore, it risks excluding students of various faiths, or those who adhere to no faith, creating divisions rather than fostering an inclusive educational environment," read the statement signed by Tulsa rabbis.

The Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK), a chapter of the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, called it a dangerous encroachment on the establishment clause by supporting the teaching of a particular interpretation of the Bible as truth.

"As the Constitution outlines, religious freedom allows for the academic instruction of religion in subjects such as geography, social studies, and history," said CAIR-OK Director Adam Soltani. “To require religious scripture, regardless of which one it may be, to be incorporated into lessons in our schools, however, is a clear violation of the Constitution's establishment clause and infringes on the rights of our students and their families."

Divisive order showcases Oklahoma's push for more Christian religion in schools (2024)

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