Texas Attorney General Asked Whether Bible Course is Obligatory

The top education official in Texas is asking the state's attorney general to clarify whether a new law requires high schools to offer a Bible course if enough students request it.

Texas lawmakers last May passed a bill that gave high schools in the state the freedom to provide an elective course on the history and literature of the Bible.

But language in the bill has resulted in confusion on whether the courses are optional or required. One section of the bill mentions the phrase "may" offer while another section includes the phrase "shall" offer.

A different section also stipulates that a school district "is not required to offer the course at that campus for that semester" if a threshold of 15 students is not met.

"Must all school districts and charter schools offer the course ... during any school year in which 15 students at a campus request the course?" Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott asked in his letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The attorney general has six months to issue an opinion on the bill, which is structured to take effect at the start of the 2009-2010 school year.

"We're waiting to see what the attorney general says – anxiously waiting," Scott told the local newspaper.

Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), the bill's sponsor, said the legislation was intended to obligate school districts to offer the elective if at least 15 students at a campus are interested.

"If a certain number of students request it, yes, they must do it," said Estes.

The original version of HB 1287 or the "Bible bill," authored by Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) mandated that all high schools in the state offer the Bible course. It stated that a "school district shall offer to students in grades nine or above" a course on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

In the same section of the updated version of the bill, the word "shall" was replaced with the word "may."

According to the Houston Chronicle, House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler (R-The Woodlands) circulated a memo shortly after the bill was passed that clarified several amendments to the bill, including one that left the decision to offer the Bible course up to school boards.