The Oklahoma Senate on Thursday passed a bill that will allow public schools in the state to offer elective courses on the Bible beginning with the 2011-12 school year.
The measure, which was authored by Sen. Tom Ivester (D-Elk City), was approved in a 38-4 vote.
According to the bill, the purpose of an elective course on the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the New Testament and their impact is to teach students (grade nine or above) knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.
"It's hard to understand the context of things if you don't understand the references to the Bible," Ivester said, noting that there are more than 1,300 Bible references in William Shakespeare's works, according to The Oklahoman. "They may not believe in those teachings, but they've had a significant impact on the world."
Ivester said last month, after authoring the measure, that it's already legal to teach the Bible in public schools for its "literary and historic qualities," as the U.S. Supreme Court established in 1963. His bill simply provides a framework for Bible courses to be taught in a legal manner, he said.
The Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has shown some support for the measure.
Jim Huff of the local chapter says the intent of the bill has merit. But he has called for several amendments to make the measure "better," including a requirement that the teacher is a certified Oklahoma teacher and is trained before the class instruction. Also, Huff suggested that the Bible should not be the only text source used in the elective class.
Schools will use course materials provided by the National Council on Bible Curriculum and follow federal and state guidelines in "maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating the diverse religious views, traditions, and perspectives of students in the school district," the bill states.
Materials from the NCBC have been voted into 532 school districts (2,035 high schools) in 38 states, according to the group. Over 360,000 students have already taken the NCBC course nationwide, on the high school campus, during school hours, for credit.
Students in Oklahoma will not be required to take the Bible course.
The bill now heads to the House.