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Tenn. A.G. says Bible classes OK

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Tennessee schools can teach a nonsectarian academic class on the Bible without violating the U.S. Constitution or previous U.S. Supreme Court precedents, Tennessee’s attorney general says.

State Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. delivered the opinion at the request of state Sen. Roy Herron, who is sponsoring a bill that would permit public schools to offer a class on the Bible’s impact in literature, art, music culture and politics. The bill is bill No. 4104 in the Senate and bill No. 4089 in the House.

Several school districts in Tennessee already offer Bible classes. Herron, a Democrat, told The Tennessean newspaper he requested the opinion in part to give other schools the OK.

“It was not out of my doubt in its constitutionality; it was out of a commitment to making it certain that none can deny its constitutionality,” Herron was quoted as saying. “There are school systems all over the state that are afraid to offer on their own a course about the Bible; they’re afraid of being sued and they don’t have adequate guidance to go forward.”

Cooper said the bill meets the high court’s “Lemon test,” a three-prong test that has been used for more than 30 years to determine the constitutionality of an establishment clause case. It’s named for a 1971 ruling, Lemon v. Kurtzman.

“The bill has a secular purpose — to authorize an elective public school course that is a nonreligious, nonsectarian, academic study of the Bible and its impact in literature, art, music, culture, and politics,” Cooper wrote in the April 1 opinion. “The bill’s principal or primary effect should neither advance nor inhibit religion. Nor does the bill appear, either in intent or in actual effect, to foster ‘excessive government entanglement’ with religion.”

If the bill had failed any of the three tests — purpose, effect or entanglement — Cooper said he would have declared it unconstitutional.

The bill requires that the class be taught by a teacher who meets “all certification requirements.” It also requires that the class:

— not “indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the biblical materials or texts from other religious or cultural traditions.”

— not include “teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions.”

— not “disparage or encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor for Baptist Press.

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