Church-state groups skeptical about Hobby Lobby Bible curriculum

Advocates for church-state separation are monitoring a new high school Bible curriculum being beta-tested in an Oklahoma school district.

By Bob Allen

A group that advocates for separation of church and state says Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green’s new high school Bible curriculum is likely unconstitutional and warns that school districts that use it risk getting sued for violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Attorneys representing Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote the superintendent and school board members in Mustang, Okla., April 23 warning that their April 14 vote to create an elective Bible curriculum in high schools “presents significant risks of unconstitutional religious instruction and could expose the school district to costly, time-consuming lawsuits.”

Hobby Lobby, a family-owned crafts store chain based in Oklahoma City, is currently embroiled in a church-state battle before the U.S. Supreme Court with a lawsuit claiming the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs.

Americans United, a non-sectarian and non-partisan religious-liberty watchdog group based in Washington, claims the family’s new Museum of the Bible Curriculum promotes a particular religious doctrine — that the Bible is inerrant.

“The courts have been clear: there is to be no proselytization in public schools,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Schools are welcome to teach religion objectively, but they’re not welcome to teach any one religion as literal truth. That’s exactly what the Mustang public schools are about to do.”

steve-greenHobby Lobby President Steve Green, a member of Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, Okla., described the curriculum last year while accepting the 2013 John M. Templeton Biblical Values Award from the National Bible Association. Designed to support the mission of a new Bible museum that Green is building in Washington, the curriculum will focus on the Bible’s history, narrative and impact.

Green said that includes archeological evidence supporting the historical accounts in the Bible as being literally true. “The book that we have is a reliable historical document, and we are going to point that out time and time again,” Green said.

AU lawyers said Green’s public statement that the class will teach the doctrine of Bible inerrancy undermines his claim that it will be taught from an objective standpoint. While courts have held that it’s permissible for public schools to teach about the Bible as literature, they cannot teach it as religious truth.

Americans United said any public school course devoted solely to Bible study risks running afoul of the Establishment Clause and recommended that the school board either remove the class or offer an alternative course on comparative religions.  

While the Mustang school board has agreed to beta-test the four-year curriculum as an elective, Green said he personally believes that Bible teaching in public schools should be mandatory.

“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” he said. “There are lessons from the past that we can learn from, the dangers of ignorance of this book. We need to know it, and if we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.”

The Bible course is also under scrutiny from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that seeks to uphold church-state separation and educate the public about non-theism as an alternative to religion, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.

Green said the Bible makes “some pretty incredible claims” about itself — that it is God’s word, will last forever and is a “living” book — and that readers can decide for themselves what to make of those claims.