AUSTIN (AP) _ The State Board of Education decided Friday to allow standard English and social studies guidelines to be applied to elective Bible courses rather than drafting curriculum standards specific to the teaching of the religious doctrine.
Despite concerns that the guidelines are too broad, a majority of the board agreed that they would suffice until they have further clarification from Attorney General Greg Abbott on several legal questions.
The Legislature passed a law last year allowing for Bible courses to be offered as an elective starting in the 2009-2010 school year and directed the board to adopt curriculum standards that do not run afoul of the constitutional separation of church and state.
"Maybe, what we're doing at this point, is anticipating problems we're probably not going to have," said Republican board member Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond. "If we give direction to the districts of staying within social studies and staying within language arts … that is the best directive to the district as to how to go forward with this."
Some members voiced concern that religious opinions could be taught to high school students in the classes without specific restrictions.
"We need to have a more clear picture of this course," said Republican board member Pat Hardy of Fort Worth. "It doesn't need to be philosophical stuff. It needs to be a Bible course and studying the Bible."
Abbott has about six months to issue a ruling on an inquiry, submitted last week by Education Commissioner Robert Scott, and the board expects to revisit the issue in September.
That would put the board in a time crunch to draft new Bible-specific curriculum for the 2009-2010 school year.
Among the questions Abbott's office has been asked to answer, is an inquiry about whether public high schools must offer a Bible course if requested by at least 15 students, a threshold mentioned in the bill. But the bill was unclear if the class would then be mandatory or optional for high schools to offer.
Lawmakers adopted the measure with an assurance the class would only focus on the history and literature of the Bible, and not proselytize for or disparage any faith. It also required the attorney general to review the curriculum.
The bill said the the elective Bible course would expose students to biblical content and characters as key to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, oratory and public policy.
But, religious freedom advocates argue that, without specific curriculum standards, the Bible classes are making school districts fertile ground for legal challenges.
A study by the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network in 2006 identified 25 high schools in the state already offering such courses and said all but three have serious legal problems.
At least one Texas school district has already run into legal trouble by teaching a Bible course.
The Ector County Independent School District was sued last year on behalf of eight parents in the district who alleged the Bible course violated their religious liberty. Earlier this month, both sides agreed to allow the course to continue, using course work developed by a committee of local educators.
"Local districts need the guidance of the State Board of Education on something like this," said Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network. "We've seen these courses taught … they lack the academic rigor that any parent would expect from a classroom.
"It's just asking for trouble."
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.