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Public school Bible classes go virtual

An online startup offers Bible-as-literature classes for students

iStock/Alina Humeniuk

Public school Bible classes go virtual

When Meredith Davis taught elective Bible history courses at a middle school and high school in Hamilton County, Tenn., she borrowed one of her favorite teaching activities from another teacher: Davis would write a sentence on the board—for example, “Eve eats an apple from the forbidden tree in the garden of Eden”—and students would find a Bible verse or passage that either supported or disproved the sentence. Davis said her students often rolled their eyes at the Eve sentence, but then would be shocked to realize the Biblical text doesn’t actually say “apple.”

“The effect of that was that they learned to challenge their assumptions and challenge secondhand information a bit in favor of primary sources,” she said.

Since moving to Boston in June 2020, Davis no longer teaches in-person Bible history classes. Instead, she teaches online Bible courses part-time through the new nonprofit Bible Literature Online, or BibLit. Davis began teaching for BibLit during its trial phase beginning in January 2020, and she developed much of the content for the group’s New Testament course.

While schools in many states have offered Bible classes for years, BibLit represents a foray into online learning. In a day when many Americans are surprised to hear public school Bible classes are still legal, virtual learning offers a way to bring Biblical literacy to students in districts that may not have a dedicated Bible teacher.

The Tennessee nonprofit Bible in the Schools has funded in-person Bible education in Hamilton County public schools since 1922, but some of the group’s board members launched BibLit with outside funding in 2020 as a separate entity to provide online courses. The organization’s pilot class, Bible Literature: Old Testament Ideas and Influence, began in January 2020 for about 100 Hamilton County students.

A demo version of a BibLit lesson called Origins of the Bible starts with a pre-test, a true/false quiz, a vocabulary list, and a study guide. Multiple-choice “Lesson Check-up” quizzes test students on what they read. One question asks students to pick out the correct answer from the following to describe the Bible:

  • “It is like a library in that the single work contains many separate books.”
  • “It is extremely old with parts possibly dating as far back as 1300 BCE.”
  • “It is split into two sections, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.”
  • “All of these.”

BibLit’s executive director, Mike Harrell, said the organization works with Village Virtual, an online course provider, to distribute its Old Testament and New Testament courses. Student enrollment, after increasing during the first year of the pandemic, has dropped since schools returned to in-person learning, he said: “Nobody wanted to do anything online.” But Harrell said BibLit is talking with officials in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama about expanding the program.

Multiple states have considered legislation supporting elective Bible instruction in recent years—including Oklahoma, Iowa, and Missouri during this year’s legislative session.

Davis, the teacher, said people often ask if her work is legal. “I think people understandably assume that it’s going to be a religious class, that a Bible class and a Christian class are synonymous,” she said. “I’d explain this is studying a book, like we would study any other book. … I’m certainly not up there trying to forward my religious perspective.”

A 2010 Pew Research survey found that only 23 percent of respondents knew that public school teachers are legally allowed to read a Bible passage in class as a literature example. Contrary to popular understanding, Bible instruction in public schools is legally recognized by the Supreme Court, a fact recognized even by the American Civil Liberties Union, as long as that instruction does not advocate for religious beliefs.

In 1979, a U.S. District Court ruled in Wiley v. Franklin that Bible classes in Chattanooga and Hamilton County had been unconstitutionally taught with religious intent. But instead of halting the classes completely, Chief Judge Frank W. Wilson said that opt-in Bible classes were permissible if teachers were selected by the school and met the same minimum requirements as other teachers in the district, and if class content stayed within “secular subject matter” such as history or literature.

Some Bible classes haven’t fared as well elsewhere. In 2017, a parent sued a West Virginia school district over its Bible curriculum, also called Bible in the Schools. (The West Virginia program is unaffiliated with the Hamilton County nonprofit.) The mother claimed her daughter was harassed by fellow students and isolated by teachers because she would not attend the class, and a federal appeals court eventually ruled in her favor. While the school district dropped the challenged curriculum, it did continue with another optional middle and high school class from the Bible Literacy Project.

Harrell said BibLit consulted with legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom to ensure its curriculum was viewpoint-neutral in its approach. ADF senior counsel Matt Sharp said the key is that the classes cannot focus on whether or not a particular Bible passage is true, but must instead look at how the passage has affected culture.

“You can’t read Shakespeare and really understand the beauty of his writing without also understanding the … hundreds, if not thousands, of Biblical references that Shakespeare uses in his work,” Sharp said. He pointed out that even recent works of pop culture rely on Biblical imagery, such as when the title character in Bruce Almighty parts his soup: “For someone to watch that movie and understand it, you need to know the story of Moses parting the Red Sea.”

Other organizations have also provided Bible history classes. Elizabeth Ridenour founded the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools in 1993. The organization provides curriculum for elective Bible classes, and according to the group’s website, 3,500 public high schools in 41 states use it. Ridenour said in an email that the council is funded by private donations and does not charge schools for the curriculum.

Harrell said many people are unaware that Bible classes are constitutional and worry about controversy. But to him, it’s a no-brainer: “If, in fact, the Bible is one of the most widely known and read books in the history of the world, then why aren’t we teaching it in school? Because it’s had enormous influence, certainly on Western culture, and other cultures.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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