Study uncovered bias, factual errors and insufficient curriculum standards in most Texas public school Bible courses

Most of the 60 public school districts in Texas that offer courses on the Bible aren’t meeting a 2007 state law mandating that those courses be fair as well as academically and legally sound, according to a new study by religious studies expert Mark A. Chancey.

The study uncovered bias, factual errors and insufficient curriculum standards in Texas public school Bible courses. The report “Reading, Writing & Religion II” was carried out for the Austin-based education watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN).

Chancey, an SMU Religious Studies professor, recommends the Texas State Board of Education develop Bible course curriculum standards and the Texas Education Agency be allowed funds for a teacher training program.

“If public schools are going to have courses on the Bible, those courses need to be just as academically rigorous as courses in history, English, and math, not less rigorous. Some schools’ courses seemed more intent on promoting religious belief than religious literacy,” said Chancey, who reviewed tens of thousands of pages of material from Texas school districts.

“When public schools teach about religion, it’s essential that they do so in a way that does not promote some people’s religious beliefs over others,” he said. “Students and the Bible deserve our very best efforts, and at this point, as a state we’re not giving them that.”

Unable to lawfully insert creation science into science classes, some schools inserted it into Bible classes, Chancey said.

His research found, for example, that courses in several districts included efforts to reconcile a literalistic reading of the Genesis creation story with modern science. Some suggested that assuming lengthy gaps of time between each of the six days of creation explained why scientists believed the earth is so old. Several courses implied that belief in evolution was incompatible with being religious.

“One course’s materials even included a religious tract claiming that NASA had discovered a missing day in time that corresponded to the story of the sun standing still in the biblical book of Joshua,” Chancey said. “The first time I heard this claim, I did what any reasonable person would do: I called NASA. I knew that this story was an urban legend, of course, and NASA was able to direct me to a web page discrediting it.”

Chancey, a professor in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences, has devoted considerable attention to the constitutional, political and academic issues raised by religion courses in public schools.

Chancey’s two earlier reports on Bible courses for the TFN led to the drastic revision of a nationally used Bible curriculum and helped draw attention to the ways in which Bible courses are often used for the unconstitutional promotion of certain religious views over others in public school classrooms. He said the newest report has the potential to have an impact at the local, state, and national level.

“These two studies

[the 2006 and 2013 reports] are the only data of this type that we have for understanding this issue, anywhere in the country,” he said. “There are solid civic reasons for public schools to teach about religion. Religious literacy is essential for the smooth functioning of a pluralistic democracy.”

Chancey, an Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at SMU, is a member of the editorial boards for the peer-reviewed academic journal Religion & Education and Teaching the Bible.

He has written two books with Cambridge University Press — “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee” (2002) and “Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus” (2005). Chancey recently co-authored “Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible” for Yale University Press (2012). He’s active in the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. — Denise Gee

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