Church, State and Bible Class in Texas

Mark Chancey, religious studies professor at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, talks about how evangelical Christian perspectives infiltrate public school Bible courses in Texas.

By Mark Oppenheimer

It may be a little late for the holiday of Purim, but on Tuesday, in Eastland, Tex., Gay Hart will be baking hamantaschen — the traditional doughy, triangle-shaped pastries accented with dollops of prune, Nutella or some other delectable paste — for the mostly Protestant students in her class on the Bible at Eastland High School. Her curriculum also includes latke recipes for Hanukkah, “challah-days” and the Hebrew melody “Hava Nagila.”

Mrs. Hart, a Baptist, offers such tidbits of Jewish folk culture to help make her class, offered at a public school, welcoming to people of all beliefs. But according to a new study by Mark A. Chancey of Southern Methodist University, such efforts are not enough to make her class pass constitutional muster.

Dr. Chancey asserts that Mrs. Hart’s class, while offering what he calls a “sympathetic appreciation” of differing points of view, is taught from an evangelical Christian perspective and probably runs afoul of the Constitution.

And Dr. Chancey says that Mrs. Hart, 77, is not alone in using a high school elective to pole-vault the wall between church and state. “Reading, Writing and Religion II,” released Jan. 16 by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog organization focused on the separation of church and state, is Dr. Chancey’s second study of public school Bible courses in Texas. He wrote the first in 2006, after becoming intrigued by a lawsuit in Odessa, Tex., brought on behalf of a Jewish student concerned about her public high school’s evangelical Bible curriculum. ...