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President Trump signaled his support on Monday for state bills that would allow public schools to teach courses in the Bible, which he once proclaimed was his favorite book.
Trump’s tweet came minutes after “Fox & Friends” aired a segment Monday morning on pending legislation in six states — Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia — that would allow Bible literacy courses to become a part of a public school education.
“Nothing beats the Bible,” Trump famously said on the campaign trail in 2015 — not even “The Art of the Deal.”
The Christian activists who crafted the template for inserting the Bible into public school curricula celebrated the president’s endorsement of the idea.
“We were excited to see it happen,” Steven Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation, told Yahoo News. “The model bill that we were involved with is for the state level, but we were excited to see him use his bully pulpit, so to speak.”
Fitschen said the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation — a nonprofit group formed by former Virginia Republican Congressman J. Randy Forbes to promote “restoring Judeo-Christian principles” — hired him to help draft the text of legislation that could withstand First Amendment challenges to teaching the Bible in schools.
“We looked at what was already in existence and tried to craft a model bill so we could eliminate any constitutional problems, so there could be a course that taught about Islam or Buddhism or any other religion. Many other schools already have comparative religion courses,” Fitschen said. “The reason we centered in on the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, is the history of the country, how much of our idiom and our political framework, all these things that were biblically derived because of the historical situation with many of the early colonists.”
The American Civil Liberties Union blasted both the attempt to infuse Bible literacy courses in pubic schools and Trump’s support of it. Its concern is that, notwithstanding Fitschen’s self-proclaimed commitment to religious neutrality, in practice the courses could, at least in some states, amount to a form of Christian evangelism.
“Yet again, President Trump is exploiting religious divisions to score political points. Public school Bible courses are rarely taught neutrally and objectively as required by the Constitution,” Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told Yahoo News in an email. “Instead, these courses usually resemble Sunday school classes that blatantly violate students’ and parents’ First Amendment rights. Religious education is best left to families and faith communities, not public school officials.”
Just as the pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council crafts model bills that can be adapted and introduced in states across the country, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation’s blueprint for inserting the Bible into public schools follows a similar starter-kit approach.
“We don’t get involved with the legislative battles,” Fitschen said. “Instead what we do is we put together model bills that we think would work in any of the 50 states, and it’s up on the foundation website.”
While bills following the foundation’s template failed to pass in Alabama, Iowa and West Virginia last year, Kentucky passed its version, House Bill 128, in 2017, over objections from the ACLU, and it was signed into law by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Supporters of Bible literacy classes say the text is being taught as a historical and cultural document, but the ACLU contends that including it in the curriculum is a way to promote religion.
“In several of these classes, teachers are using the Bible to impart religious life lessons and actively inculcate Christianity,” the ACLU of Kentucky wrote in a letter last year to schools seeking clarity on how the text would be presented to students.
Bills written by pro-religious groups that seek to influence the public school curriculum are not uncommon in the U.S. A new Florida measure authored by the Florida Citizens Alliance and sponsored in the state’s Legislature by Republican Rep. Dennis Baxley seeks to require public schools to teach alternatives to climate change and evolution.
A September poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found Trump’s approval rating from white evangelicals holding firm at 71 percent, and Monday’s tweet probably won’t change that.
A course in Biblical literacy might have helped Trump, who once mistakenly referred to one of the New Testament books as “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians” — embarrassingly, at a speech at the evangelical Liberty University.
On its website, the National Legal Foundation says its mission is to “prayerfully create and implement innovative strategies that, through decisive action, will cause America’s public policy and legal system to support and facilitate God’s purpose for her.”
Both the NLF and the CPCF view their goal of seeing Bible literacy taught in schools in all 50 states as a longterm project.
“I expect in some the states where it has failed they’ll try again,” Fitschen said.