Oklahoma’s State Superintendent Requires Public Schools to Teach the Bible

Oklahoma’s state superintendent on Thursday directed all public schools to teach the Bible, including the Ten Commandments, in an extraordinary move that blurs the lines between religious instruction and public education.

The superintendent, Ryan Walters, who is a Republican, described the Bible as an “indispensable historical and cultural touchstone” and said it must be taught in certain, unspecified grade levels.

The move comes a week after Louisiana became the first state to mandate that public schools display the Ten Commandments in every classroom, which was quickly challenged in court.

The Oklahoma directive could also be challenged and is likely to provoke another fight over the role of religion in public schools.

The efforts to bring religious texts into the classroom reflect a growing national movement among conservatives — particularly Catholics and evangelicals who oppose abortion, transgender rights and what they view as liberal school curriculums — to openly embrace the idea that America’s democracy needs to be grounded in their Christian values.

That movement had a major victory in overturning Roe v. Wade two years ago, and its supporters see ending abortion as only a starting point in a broader campaign to preserve and expand the presence of their Christian values in American life. Many conservative Christians see schools as a frontier of their fight, as they seek to shape the next generation.

In his announcement on Thursday, Mr. Walters called the Bible “a necessary historical document to teach our kids about the history of this country, to have a complete understanding of Western civilization, to have an understanding of the basis of our legal system.”

“Every teacher, every classroom in the state will have a Bible in the classroom, and will be teaching from the Bible in the classroom,” he said.

In some states, the Bible has been taught as part of specific classes, and is generally seen to be allowed as a historical text, or alongside other religious texts or literature. But few other states, if any, have issued such a broad requirement.

In a memo to school district leaders, Mr. Walters did not make immediately clear what the biblical instruction would entail.

He suggested the Bible and the Ten Commandments could be referred to “as an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion or the like.” And he said they could be studied “for their substantial influence on our nation’s founders and the foundational principles of our Constitution.” That appears to nod to a core tenet of conservative Christian political ideology that the nation was founded specifically to be a Christian nation — an idea that many mainstream historians dispute.

Stacey Woolley, the president of the school board for Tulsa Public Schools, which Mr. Walters has threatened to take over, said she had not received specific instructions on the curriculum but believed it would be “inappropriate” to teach students of various faiths and backgrounds excerpts from the Bible alone, without also including other religious texts.

Whether Mr. Walters has authority under Oklahoma law to make such a sweeping directive to all public schools is unclear, said Andrew C. Spiropoulos, a constitutional law professor at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, who described the mandate as pushing “the edge of the envelope.”

In general, he said, courts have ruled that the Bible can be taught in public schools alongside other religious texts, or in conjunction with other works of literature.

“By singling it out as a proposal standing alone, that could be legally problematic,” Mr. Spiropoulos said.

Mr. Walters, a 39-year-old conservative Christian and a former history teacher, has emerged as a bombastic figure in Oklahoma politics and an unapologetic culture warrior in education. He has been at the center of controversies over gender identity, the teaching of race and other hot-button issues, and has at times gone on the attack against school districts and individual teachers.

Mr. Walters has also expressed support for prayer in public schools and backed an effort to create the nation’s first religious charter school in Oklahoma. (Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked that school, in a case that could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.)

His Bible directive faced immediate pushback, from groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which also sued to stop the religious charter school in Oklahoma.

Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United, said the group was “ready to step in and protect all Oklahoma public school children and their families from constitutional violations of their religious freedom.”

“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” she said, adding, “public schools may teach about religion, but they may not preach any religion.”

Ms. Laser’s group is also challenging Louisiana’s Ten Commandments measure, which requires that the commandments be displayed in each classroom of every public elementary, middle and high school, as well as public college classrooms. It will also include a statement asserting that the Ten Commandments were a “prominent part of American public education for almost three centuries,” reflecting the contention by supporters that the Ten Commandments are not purely a religious text but also a historical document.

Groups like the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, which was formed in 2020 to push legislation that aligns with their Christian values, have coordinated with lawmakers to push various recent measures. The N.A.C.L. specifically worked with lawmakers in Florida, Louisiana and Texas to pass bills allowing public schools to employ chaplains.

The country appears to be split over religious instruction in public schools, according to a survey from last year by The Associated Press and NORC, an independent research institution at the University of Chicago. Among those polled, 37 percent said there was too little religion, 31 percent said there was the right amount, and 31 percent said there was too much.

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