Ryan Walters: Bible must be taught in schools, strict compliance expected (2024)

Murray EvansThe Oklahoman

Oklahoma state schools Superintendent Ryan Walters sent a letter to state school districts on Thursday ordering them to incorporate the Bible “as an instructional support into the curriculum" for grades 5 through 12, citing its importance as a historical document.

“Adherence to this mandate is compulsory,” Walters’ letter read. “Further instructions for monitoring and reporting on this implementation for the 2024/25 school year will be forthcoming. Immediate and strict compliance is expected.”

Walters announced he’d sent the letter during the monthly Oklahoma State Board of Education, with a stack of five books — three of which were various versions of the Bible — prominently displayed in front of him. His spokesman sent a news release to local and state media, but did not provide a copy of the letter to the districts with that release. The Oklahoman obtained the letter from another source.

Walters’ announcement came two days after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a contract between the Statewide Virtual School Charter Board and St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which would have been the nation’s first religious-based charter school, violated both the state and U.S. Constitutions and state law. Walters was not a party in that case, although he strongly criticized the court’s decision.

In ordering instruction on the Bible, Walters cited broad authority under Title 70 of the Oklahoma Statutes, which governs state education. The law reads, in part, “School districts shall exclusively determine the instruction, curriculum, reading lists and instructional materials and textbooks, subject to any applicable provisions or requirements as set forth in law, to be used in meeting the subject matter standards. School districts may, at their discretion, adopt supplementary student assessments which are in addition to the statewide student assessments.”

More: Is religious liberty dwindling in Oklahoma? How the state has become a legal battleground

In a news release, Walters said his directive “is in alignment” with state educational standards approved in May 2019. That’s when the Oklahoma State Department of Education updated its social studies standards under then-state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

“Oklahoma law already explicitly allows Bibles in the classroom and enables teachers to use them in instruction,” the state attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Oklahoma voters have rejected religious-focused initiatives before

While Oklahoma is a deeply conservative state politically, that philosophy has had its limits. In 2016, Oklahoma voters — by more than 200,000 votes — rejected State Question 790, which would have removed Section 5, Article 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which states: “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”

In his letter, Walters called the Bible “one of the most historically significant books and a cornerstone of Western civilization, along with the Ten Commandments. They 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. This is not merely an educational directive but a crucial step in ensuring our students grasp the core values and historical context of our country. “

He said the state Education Department may supply teaching materials for Bible instruction “to ensure uniformity in delivery.”

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

Among those criticizing Walters’ action was the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We adamantly oppose any requirements that religion be forcefully taught or required as a part of lesson plans in public schools, in Oklahoma, or anywhere else in the country,” said CAIR-OK’s executive director, Adam Soltani. “Religious freedom, as outlined in the Constitution, allows for the academic instruction of religion in subjects such as geography, social studies, and history. 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.”

Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, a frequent critic of Walters, cited Oklahoma’s low ranking on national education lists and suggested the superintendent’s focus should be elsewhere.

“Requiring a Bible in every classroom does not improve Oklahoma’s ranking as 49th in education,” Dollens told The Oklahoman. “Ryan Walters should focus on educating students, not evangelizing them.”

Two Democrats who serve on the House Education Committee — Rep. Melissa Provenzano, of Tulsa, and Rep. John Waldron, of Tulsa — suggested school districts should take a wait-and-see approach on Walters' order.

“Following this new directive from the state superintendent of education, we advise school districts to carefully review and follow existing state law when it comes to religious instruction in schools,” Provenzano said. “We know from the outcome of SQ 790 that Oklahomans are overwhelmingly against using public dollars to fund religious purposes. The Oklahoma Constitution is very clear on what is allowed when it comes to public education.

“Religious instruction should begin with and remain in the rightful hands of parents and guardians. Today’s directive feels like an unprecedented attempt from the state superintendent to distract from the reported investigations into financial mismanagement of tax dollars meant to support our schools.”

Rachel Laser, the president and chief executive officer of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called Walters' order "textbook Christian nationalism: Walters is abusing the power of his public office to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else’s children."

Laser added: “Public schools are not Sunday schools. 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."

A statement from the Oklahoma Education Association, a teachers' union, noted a recent ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that asserted local control over school libraries, nullifying two administrative rules passed by the state board in 2023.

"A memo from the State Department of Education does not change that ruling," the statement 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 cannot usurp local control and compel education professionals to violate the Constitution."

Ryan Walters: Bible must be taught in schools, strict compliance expected (2024)


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