Scripture study and science projects? That’s the prospect some students in South Dakota may face after a substantial majority in the state’s House of Representatives helped pass a resolution to encourage public school districts to incorporate Bible education into curricula. The House passed the resolution last week by a vote of 55-13 after a short floor debate during which no member from either party voiced opposition.
As a non-binding resolution, HRC 1004 only serves as a legislative green light to interested school districts to add an elective course on the academic study of the Bible. State Rep. Steve Hickey (R), the resolution’s chief sponsor, told TPM he did not want the measure to carry the force of law because he doesn’t think the state legislature should be “dictating to local school boards how to run their curriculum.”Hickey, a pastor in Sioux Falls, SD, insists that he only wants to promote the scholarly value of the Bible. “I have a concern that we’re raising a generation of kids who can’t quote anything beyond Sponge Bob,” Hickey said, adding that the Christian holy book has permeated Western society in a way that other sacred texts have not.
While Hickey struck a diplomatic tone on a divisive issue, he still characterized the resolution as a response to what he sees as secularizing forces in public schools. “I would tell those who fear this, now you know how Christians feel when they send their kids off to a public school that is overtly hostile and propagates secular humanism,” Hickey said. “The pressure from that perspective to teach secular humanism in high school and college is far, far greater than proselytizing in a Bible course.”
State Rep. Marc Feinstein (D) voted against the resolution but calls Hickey a friend. Feinstein believes the resolution will almost certainly lead to constitutionally thorny scenarios, despite the measure’s explicit requirement that any Bible course must be in compliance with the First Amendment.
“They say it’s okay as long as it comports with the First Amendment, but we won’t know if it does until a case makes it to the courts,” Feinstein told TPM. “If they say schools can do anything [related to the study of the Bible] as long as they don’t violate the First Amendment, well, then my thought is they can’t do anything.”
Feinstein, one of three Jewish members of the South Dakota Legislature, concedes that a strictly academic teaching of the Bible would “probably be okay.” But he believes that some educators will invariably use the opportunity to preach in the classroom. “You only need to look at a lot of public schools, at football games, where players and coaches get down on one knee and pray,” Feinstein said. “In small, isolated communities, nobody challenges that, but does that make it okay?”
The resolution, which will be taken up by the State Senate this week, is the latest act from a Republican-dominated legislature that has become something of a laboratory for conservative ideas in recent years. South Dakota made national headlines in 2006 when the legislature passed an outright ban on abortion, which was then signed into law but ultimately overturned by voters through a statewide ballot measure. The legislature took up the abortion issue again last year, passing a bill that requires women to wait three days and receive counseling at so-called pregnancy help centers before undergoing the procedure.