Is Walters' call for putting the Bible in schools a legal issue or just for generating attention? (2024)

M. Scott CarterThe Oklahoman

The letter state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters wrote to public schools telling them to incorporate the Bible into their classroom curriculum is drawing both applause and outrage from residents across the state.

It's also raising legal questions among some officials who fear a long-term legal fight. And others say Walters is simply doing what he does best — generating media attention with an issue that is already allowed by current laws.

On Thursday, Walters announced he had written a letter to public school districts telling them to incorporate the Bible into their curriculum. Walters spoke about the letter during a news briefing at the State Board of Education meeting.

“Effective immediately, all Oklahoma schools are required to incorporate the Bible, which includes theTen Commandments, as an instructional support into the curriculum” in fifth through 12th grades, Walters wrote in a letter to public school administrators. “The Bible is one of the most historically significant books and a cornerstone of Western civilization, along with theTen Commandments."

The Bible, Walters wrote, “will be referenced as an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like, as well as for their substantial influence on our nation’s founders and the foundational principles of our Constitution. Adherence to this mandate is compulsory, and immediate and strict compliance is expected."

Oklahoma law already allows the Bible to be used in school curriculum. But could Ryan Walters' memo be unconstitutional?

At least one state official said Walters isn't breaking any new ground.

Phil Bacharach, spokesman for Attorney General Gentner Drummond, said current law already allows the Bible to be used in curriculum. “Oklahoma law already explicitly allows Bibles in the classroom and enables teachers to use them as a part of instruction," Bacharach said.

Bacharach said there appears to be some discrepancy between what Walters’ memo to schools says and how it has been characterized. "The memo does not break new ground, as Oklahoma law explicitly allows and permits the use of Bibles in classrooms to teach about religion, including history, influences on law and government," he said.

Still, Walters didn't specify which version of the Bible should be kept and used in school classrooms.

And it's issues such as that, plus an ongoing debate over existing law that could cause a drawn out legal fight, says University of Oklahoma Law professor Joe Thai.

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

Thai, an expert on the First Amendment, teaches constitutional law at OU. He said that although current law and court rules would appear to limit what Walters can do, he did not expect those laws and previous rulings to hold up under scrutiny by the present Supreme Court.

"Under current law, it provides for separation of church and state," Thai said. "The government cannot act with the purpose of promoting religion or with the effect of promoting religion."

Current law, Thai said, would stop Walters' plan.

However, two years ago, within days of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, Thai said, the nation's high court said that it had abandoned its test about religious purpose and effect. That case, he said, allowed a football coach to pray with students during a football game.

Instead, the Supreme Court seemed to take a different approach, Thai said, by asking if students were coerced or forced into practicing a particular religion.

"The court indicated it wasn't going to look at the purpose," Thai said, but "whether or not kids are being forced."

What about having the Ten Commandments in the classroom?

Even though the high courts' ruling that says posting a copy of the Ten Commandments in the classroom is unconstitutional, Thai said he expects the Supreme Court to overrule that decision and, instead, ask if students are being coerced to adopt a particular religion.

Another issue facing schools and public officials involves which version of the Bible is being used. If the state selected a particular version of the Bible that is favored by a particular denomimation, Thai said, that edges closer to the establishment of an official religion.

"This is the version of the Bible that we, the government, approve of as the official version for Oklahoma education," he said. "How is that different from the Church of England saying, 'We are the official Church of England?'"

Opinion: Editorial: Ten Commandments mandate? Focus instead on why public education is 49th in US

Although legal scholars and school officials are still examining Walters' letter, at least one group has announced it would challenge the superintendent in court. Shortly after Walters' letter became public, the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a media statement saying it would fight Walters' mandate.

"Public schools are not Sunday schools. Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters has repeatedly made clear that he is incapable of distinguishing the difference and is unfit for office. His latest scheme ― to mandate use of the Bible in Oklahoma public schools’ curriculum ― is a transparent, unconstitutional effort to indoctrinate and religiously coerce public school students," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This is textbook Christian Nationalism. Walters is abusing the power of his public office to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else’s children. Not on our watch."

Laser said Christian Nationalism is based on the myth that America was founded as a Christian nation, adding that core tenets of that myth appear in Walters’ memo. She said her organization was ready to step in and protect all Oklahoma public school children and their families from constitutional violations of their religious freedom.

"It won’t be the first time: We’re already facing Walters and other state officialsin courtto stop the nation’s first religious public charter school," she said. "Walters, a former history teacher, gets his history wrong in the memo launching this plan when he writes that “the Bible had a substantial influence on … the foundational principles of our Constitution. The records from the Constitutional Convention show the Bible was almost never invoked. The Ten Commandments were never cited."

Laser said Americans United would do "everything in our power to stop Christian Nationalists like Ryan Walters from trampling the religious freedom of public school children and their families."

"This nation must recommit to our foundational principle of church-state separation before it’s too late. Public education, religious freedom and democracy are all on the line," she said.

Echoing, Laser, the Oklahoma Education Association said the debate about Walters' latest move follows a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently that said school districts have the right to choose which books are available in their libraries and classrooms.

"A memo from the State Department of Education does not change that ruling," the statement from the OEA said. "Teaching about the historical context of religion (and the Bible) is permissible; however, teaching religious doctrine is not permissible. Public schools cannot indoctrinate students with a particular religious belief or religious curriculum."

The state superintendent, the OEA said, cannot usurp local control and compel education professionals to violate the Constitution.

Still, Thai said he would continue to monitor issues such as Walters' letter to see if they evolve into high court rulings.

"The Supreme Court is more likely to take a case when a state law is struck down, rather than when it's upheld," he said. "Outlawing the practice or belief of certain religions, I think everyone on the current court would believe that would violate the Establishment Clause, saying that it's illegal to practice a certain religion or to say its illegal to have a certain religious belief."

But short of that, Thai said, the rest is an open question.

Is Walters' call for putting the Bible in schools a legal issue or just for generating attention? (2024)

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