What to know about Oklahoma’s top education official ordering Bible instruction in schools

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s top education official outraged civil rights groups and others when he ordered public schools to immediately begin incorporating the Bible into lesson plans for students in grades 5 through 12.

Republican State Superintendent Ryan Walters said in a memo Thursday to school leaders across the state that the Bible is a cornerstone of Western civilization and that its use in classrooms is mandatory.

“It is essential that our kids have an understanding of the Bible and its historical context,” Walters said.

Here are some things to know about Walters’ order, which requires schools to incorporate the Bible as an “instructional support into the curriculum.”

Can the superintendent require biblical instruction?

Walters said Thursday Oklahoma state law and academic standards are “crystal clear” that the Bible can be used to instruct students in public schools. Indeed, Oklahoma social studies standards list various biblical stories, as well as other religious scriptures from Buddhism and Hinduism, as primary instructional resources for students.

What’s not clear is whether Walters can mandate the Bible’s use in classrooms. Oklahoma state law says that individual school districts have the exclusive authority to determine curriculum, reading lists, instructional materials and textbooks.

Andy Fugitt, an attorney for the Oklahoma Center for Educational Law, said his organization has fielded numerous calls from districts seeking guidance on Walters’ order. Fugitt says the order is likely to be challenged in court by First Amendment groups who believe the order may violate the Establishment Clause that prohibits government from “establishing” a religion.

A school district could also sue over the order if they were threatened with punishment for noncompliance, Fugitt said, but Walters’ order didn’t suggest any kind of repercussions for noncompliance.

Is Oklahoma’s Bible order part of a national trend?

Oklahoma’s directive is the latest salvo in an effort by conservative-led states to target public schools: Louisiana has required them to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, while others are under pressure to teach the Bible and ban books and lessons about race, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Earlier this week the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked an attempt by the state to have the first publicly funded religious charter school in the country.

“It could well be that some of these developments are appropriate and some of them go too far,” said Richard Garnett, a law professor and director of the Notre Dame Program on Church, State & Society.

“There have been times in the last decades where people went too far in kicking religion out of the public square. The Supreme Court has told people that’s not what the First Amendment requires. Now you’re seeing adjustments.”

How are people reacting to the order?

Walters’ order sparked immediate outrage from civil rights groups and those dedicated to the separation of church and state.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which recently joined a coalition of groups suing Louisiana over its new Ten Commandments law, vowed to take action to block Walters from forcing the Bible into Oklahoma public schools.

“Walters’ concern should be the fact that Oklahoma ranks 45th in education,” the foundation’s co-president Dan Barker said in a statement. “Maybe education would improve if Oklahoma’s superintendent of education spent his time promoting education, instead of religion.”

Bob Gragg is superintendent of Seminole Public Schools, a central Oklahoma district with about 1,400 students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Gragg said he reads the Bible every morning at his kitchen table, but also is a firm believer in the separation of church and state.

“With the separation I believe church and state are made stronger,” Gragg said. “(Walters) is treading a slippery slope that even if he is successful in the least bit, has grave consequences for our schools, churches, families, state and nation.”


Follow Sean Murphy at www.x.com/apseanmurphy

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