Bible class bill advances for Iowa

In January, the Iowa Statehouse proposed the House File 2301 bill in Iowa legislature that would make Iowa one of the few states with “Bible literacy” laws allowing or requiring public schools to offer these courses. These courses would include teaching the text from the Bible or Hebrew scriptures.

The Bill is suggesting that the Bible will be taught in a historical matter. The legislation says that the course would not promote any religion, faith or non religious perspective. Rather, the class’s focal point would be on the Bible’s influence, and teach students about “biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives” that would help students better understand culture and society through “literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy.”

“I would not only take it, but I would teach it,” said senior Evan Hall who reads the Bible every day, ranging from passages to chapters. “We could bring along someone like Mr. Stewart (a Presbyterian history teacher) or Ms. Lake (a world geography teacher that briefly teaches religion). What makes the Bible unique, however, is that we shouldn’t just teach the Bible; we need to let the Bible teach us.”

Hall invests a great deal  of time on his religion because he believes that the Bible is unique and has a strong historical connection to the world. “Even if you don’t believe in the Bible, you should still take a course on it,” he said. “Everyone has a right to what they believe, but whoever they are, they should at least take a look at this No. 1 best-seller by far. Like Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘a thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education,’” Hall said.

According to Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, public school religion teachers can justify to the importance of religious history, but not pick one religion to teach over another. She said, “Religion is certainly a part of the human experience and our history, and it’s also part of our current times, so it’s important for that to be included, but it has to be done in an academic basis and it has to be done in a neutral manner.”

Currently there are no laws that prevent Iowa public schools from teaching an elective class that studies the literature, history or art of a particular religion, but some think this new bill can interfere with the separation of church and state.

Pastor Elizabeth Popplewell, the pastor at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cedar Falls,  said, “The class is so narrow on what is going to be taught. Teaching religion is always a delicate process. On one hand you want to teach understanding, which means you have to bring in the historical context, which is a wonderful thing in addition to looking at it theologically. Which means, how does one understand God? When you start to teach theology, you really have to be careful that you’re not telling someone how to think, but you’re simply opening up their relationship to the text and their imagination to who God is.”

Popplewell said she is enthusiastic about students learning about the Bible but that it’s important to learn about other cultures and faiths as well. “I think it would be a wonderful thing for students to study texts from different religions so they can better understand their classmates, their neighbors and people here that live in the Cedar Valley. It would be wonderful only if it was inclusive of other religions. It would go a long way with beginning to understand different cultures and different practices, so it would build understanding instead of building walls that would separate us,” Popplewell said.

The five major religions are taught briefly in social studies classes at Cedar Falls High School. For some students, the brief unit on religion is enough, but others want to be knee deep in culture. “Honestly, taking a world geography class,” Hall said, “I was barely taught much when it came to religion. Nothing against the teacher(s), but I think there were a few policies that made this subject hard to teach without being biased or involving your belief in it. Compared to decades ago, school rarely teaches religion anymore, and I find it to be quite sad, knowing that religion has shaped cultures all around the globe.”

Eastern civilization teacher Melissa Rogers said she wishes that she could include more about religions as well. “I think there is always more that you can learn about the different religions. You’re always limited in time in what you can do in reference to the material that’s being learned,” Rogers said. Roger spends a day or so on each religion, but never has enough time to peel back the many layers of each religion.

On Tuesday Jan. 30, an Iowa legislative panel approved the Bible literacy class. Although the bill is moving forward, a majority of the Republican Party in Iowa are declining to favor it, and the Democrats are fighting against it.

“I know there were 11 or 12 sponsors of the bill. That indicates to me that there is not a majority in the Republican party,” Iowa House Representative Bob Kressig said. Iowa Democratic representatives are speaking out about adding classes that teach other religions, to counter the bill. “I’ll have one for the Quran, and I’ll have one for the Talmud. I’ll have one for all those major religions,” Iowa House Representative Mary Mascher said.

Students at the high school are also unsure of the bill.  In a survey taken by 58 CFHS students, 67 percent said they would vote no on the bill, and 32 percent said they would vote yes, if given the opportunity.

Students who were opposed to the class were surprised about a class that would just address Christianity. “People don’t have to be Christians. Why would we teach a Christian class?” sophomore Emma Herring asked.

Other students were excited for a potential new class that focuses on the Bible.  “I was glad because religion is usually looked down upon in schools, and with this bill, students who want to learn more about the Bible in a non-church setting can,” sophomore Matthew Nicols said.

Advocates for the bill rationalize the class with the belief that Christianity is the foundation of the nation. They say that the Bible is one of the oldest pieces of history and can be taught like any other U.S. history class.

“The Bible, whether you believe it or not, has a large role in world history,” sophomore Jakob Wiechers said. “We can’t just ignore it because of its controversy. The Bible is simply a part of our history and many other nations’ history. It would be good for students to learn about that history. I’m not saying that we are going to try to convince people that Adam and Eve were real. It would be pretty much the same thing as us learning about the creation stories of Greek mythology. There would be no problem.”

Others think there is more to America’s history than Christianity. “Why just the Bible, not anything else?” senior Charles Potter asked. “The article (from the Des Moines Register)  also proclaims that the only foundation of American values stems from Judeo-Christian scripture. This is a sweeping generalization, and basing one of the major arguments for why the bill should pass is biased and relies too heavily on people putting their faith over others. This makes me genuinely upset. People shouldn’t simply forget how much went into America to make it what it is today; it wasn’t just Christianity that made America what it is. It’s a melting pot, full of people from different cultures, backgrounds and religions all coming together. Christianity wasn’t just some magic thing that made America ‘America.’”

With the belief in mind that Christianity is the reason humans exist and that Christianity is the source of  America’s prosperity, many schools and universities used to teach religion in the classroom. Now with the separation of church and state, the sight of a Bible in a classroom is rare.

“Compared to decades ago, school rarely teaches religion anymore, and I find it to be quite sad, knowing that religion has shaped cultures all around the globe,” Hall said. “Yes, religion in general has caused war in the past, but I wouldn’t even call my belief a religion; it’s a relationship, and once you look at it that way, that’s where things shift and religion doesn’t seem as bad as you thought.”

There are many different religions and faiths practiced in Cedar Falls and Iowa, yet many of the homes in the state of Iowa practice Christianity. Some students believe that because of this, it is justifiable to only teach the Bible in public schools.

“I believe that this is a great opportunity for students who are interested in learning more about God but feel too intimidated to go to church, this would be a great option,” sophomore Jack Plagge said “For those who aren’t Christian, they can have their own group outside of class. I say that because people will feel left out that their religion doesn’t become a class. but [greater than] 70 percent of the U.S. population are Christian, which outnumbers the percentage of other religions by a lot.”

Other students believe that just because Christianity is the predominant religion doesn’t mean the Cedar Falls High School and other Iowa public schools have to favor one religion over others. “I do not believe it is right to only have a religious class that stems from the Bible,” senior Estrella Barron said. “Yes, a majority of this school might be of the Christian or Catholic faith but there are still so many other kids who aren’t religious or that is not their religion.”

An optimist students from Cedar Falls is recognizing the bill’s exclusiveness, yet is looking for ways to make the bill result in a positive outcome. “I don’t believe it should be allowed that a class be taught in Bible study because it infringes upon the separation of church and state,” sophomore Alexis Williams said. “However, if classes were added to include a multitude of different religions, or perhaps a class encompassing the study of multiple different religions rather than Christianity alone. it would be OK; if not they are showing a preference to Christianity, and this can make others feel omitted.”

Popplewell said that if this bill becomes law, Iowa Public Schools will be closing the door to diversity that makes the Cedar Valley and Iowa so special. “You’re teaching one tradition, the Christian tradition. You’re leaving out a good number of the population that’s here in the Cedar Valley, and the richness they bring, and their own understanding of God,” Popplewell said.

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