In S.C., students can learn Bible history and literature for class credit

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, say two South Carolina laws that allow high school students to study the Bible blur the line between church and state.

Do you know Abraham?

How about Moses' song celebrating the Hebrews' release from Egyptian captivity? Can you draw parallelism between The Book of Psalms and British poetry?

According to President Donald Trump, who tweeted on Monday his support for Bible literacy courses in public schools, these are things students should learn in the classroom.

"Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!" Trump said, referring to states who are filing bills that would allow students to study the history and literacy of the Old Testament era and New Testament era in school.

In South Carolina, laws allow students to obtain credit for courses in Bible history, literature and even devotion, where the text is taught as God's word.

In 2006, South Carolina passed the Released Time Credit Act, which enables students, with parental permission, to engage in off-campus devotional study. In the program, which has been in effect in several other states for decades, students leave campus during the school day for courses taught at local churches by licensed teachers.

Unlike Bible literacy courses, these classes teach the Bible as a holy text that reveals God's truths. 

The Christian Learning Centers in Florence County offers a Released Time program. There, the center's vision is that "every child in Florence County would have the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ, examine His teachings and make their decision regarding Him."

The group's website says it has served more than 1,600 students.

In Clarendon County, the Christian learning center offers classes in Old Testament and New Testament Survey. The center currently serves 800 students. Young children learn Bible stories, memorize Scripture and sing spiritual songs. High school students engage in in-depth Scripture study.

“We definitely would teach (the Bible) as truth," said Erie Brown, executive director for the Clarendon Christian Learning Center.

Brown said the group doesn't receive government support. They're supported financially by local organizations, businesses and churches.

The program has withstood legal action. When a school district in Spartanburg was sued years ago by the Freedom from Religion Foundation for its own Released Time policy, the court sided with the school district, arguing the program properly accommodates religion without establishing it.

However, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, say both state laws blur the line between church and state.

ACLU legal representatives said that by allowing credit for Released Time courses, it appears as if the government is supporting a specific religion.

“If you give credit for it, it seems to be supported (by the government)," said Susan Dunn, legal director for ACLU South Carolina.

In 2007, Sen Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, introduced a bill to bring Bible study inside classrooms.

Derived from model legislation created by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, the law permits high schools to offer an elective course concerning the history and literature of the Old Testament era and a course in the New Testament era on school grounds.

Unlike Released Time courses, though, these weren't designed to convert students. Per state law, the courses must be taught in "an objective manner with no attempt to influence the students as to either the truth or falsity of the materials presented." State standards outline that students analyze the artistic interpretation Old Testament through creative writing, dance, music, theater and visual arts from various cultures and perspectives.

The courses illustrate how poets like William Shakespeare were influenced by biblical literature.

“The thought process by it would be that all students, whether you’re Christian, Hindu or atheist, you should have a working knowledge of the Bible to better understand American culture," Grooms said. “This is not a Sunday School text. This is an in-depth study of the history and literature of the Bible. ... If you had a teacher who was preaching with a pro-Christian bias, that would not be permissible. Likewise, if you had a teacher with an anti-Christian bias, that would not be permissible.”

Regarding biblical literacy on school grounds, the ACLU would like to see courses offered for other religious texts.

“If the only religious text that's taught is the Bible, then you sort of have a problem," Dunn said. "It's hard for that to not look like government support.”

Not many South Carolina schools have implemented Bible courses inside their classrooms. Charleston County only had one, Wando High School, that offered The Bible as Literature during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. But the course was discontinued due to lack of interest from students, school district spokesman Andy Pruitt said.

This lack of interest in reading the Bible is seen nationally. A 2017 Pew Research Center report showed that while most American adults identify as Christian, only 35 percent of Americans said they read Scripture at least once a week. Forty-five percent said they seldom or never read the Bible.

 

Seanna Adcox and Andy Shain contributed to this report. Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.