Only 1 in 10 Americans support offering Bible literacy classes in public schools: poll

Students seen in a high school classroom.
Students seen in a high school classroom. | (Photo: Reuters/Stephane Mahe)

As bills in several states would require public schools to offer Bible history classes, a new poll revealed that only about one in 10 Americans support the idea of Bible history electives.

A Hill-HarrisX poll of over 1,030 Americans released last week found that just 12 percent of respondents believe that states should require schools to offer new history classes that teach only about the Bible and no other religious text.

The poll, which has a 3.1-percentage-point margin of error, comes as bills in at least 10 states have been introduced this year that would require public schools to offer Bible classes but would not allow for texts from atheists or other religions to be offered as electives, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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Such classes are already legally recognized in seven states, according to The Gospel Coalition.

The new survey found that 16 percent of respondents believe that states should require schools to offer history classes that teach about all major religions, not just Christianity and the Bible.

Seventeen percent of respondents said that they think schools should offer history classes that not only teach the history of all major religions but also the history of atheism.

Nineteen percent of respondents feel that schools should not offer history classes focusing on “any religious books.” The poll also found that 18 percent of respondents believe states should allow schools to decide whether or not to offer history classes on religion or atheism.

Almost two out of 10 respondents (17 percent) said they were “unsure” when answering the question.

In 2017, Kentucky passed what has been deemed the “Bible Literacy Act,” which requires schools to offer elective social studies classes “on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible [and] the New Testament” in order to “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.”

“The purpose of these courses is to focus on the historical impact and literary style from texts of the Old Testament and/or New Testament era, including the Hebrew Scriptures to teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy,” the Kentucky Board of Education states online.

Similar bills have been introduced by conservative lawmakers in other states thanks to advocacy from Project Blitz, an effort launched in 2015 by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. The project seeks to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square.”

In addition to Kentucky, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a similar bill earlier this month. Arkansas also passed a similar Bible elective bill this year.

The Kentucky bill and similar ones introduced in other states have drawn the ire of secularists who feel that such classes in public schools cross the line when it comes to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

When broken down by political affiliation, the Hill-HarrisX poll found that 22 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of respondents who classify as “strong conservative” feel that states should require schools to offer history classes that teach about the Bible only.

On the flip side, 22 percent of Democrats, 24 percent of respondents who classify as “strong liberal” and 29 percent of those who said they “lean liberal” feel that states should require schools to offer classes that teach about all religions and atheism.  

Twenty-two percent of Democrats and 25 percent of those who identify as “strong liberal” believe states should not allow schools to offer classes that teach about any religious book. Meanwhile, 16 percent of Republicans said the same.

Critics, such as Americans United, feel that such bills are “part of an effort to establish this sort of narrow Christian agenda as the norm for our country.”

“The [poll] results are interesting because they provide the first snapshot of what Americans really think about this issue,” Americans United Senior Adviser Rob Boston wrote in an op-ed.  

“That’s important because bills that would allow or require public schools to offer classes that purport to teach about the Bible as an academic subject keep surfacing in state legislatures, and a few have even become law.”

Natalie Jackson, research director with the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, told The Hill that the Hill-HarrisX poll is unique in the sense that nearly 20 percent of respondents indicated that they were “unsure” on this issue.

"I just think there's no real consensus right now on the type of policy,” she said.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that school-led Bible reading violates the Establishment Clause, the nation’s high court left open the possibility for schools to teach the Bible so long as it is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

In January, President Donald Trump voiced his support for the “Bible literacy class” bills that have been introduced in the states. He said they give “students the option of studying the Bible.”

“Starting to make a turn back? Great!” Trump wrote in a tweet.

Chuck Stetson, who is in favor of Bible instruction in schools and publishes a textbook he claims is being used in over 600 public schools in the U.S., told The Washington Post that the U.S. is “not too far away from a tipping point.“

“Instead of having to find a reason to teach the Bible in public schools academically, as part of a good education, you’re going to have to find a reason not to do it,” Stetson was quoted as saying. “When the president of the United States gives us a shout-out, that’s pretty crazy. . . . It’s got the momentum now.”

The idea of offering Bible classes in public schools is not new since similar classes have been offered and funded by some public schools across the U.S. As The Washington Post notes, other schools have taken a different approach by allowing children “released time” to attend church-taught Bible classes.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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