Florida bill aims to teach Bible as ‘history and culture’

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida House Representative Kimberly Daniels (Dem) of Jacksonville has introduced legislation, HB 195, that would allow public high schools to offer elective courses on the Bible. The bill cleared the House Education panel earlier this March on an 11-3 vote. The bill, however, still faces hurdles including a possible constitutional challenge before it becomes law.

The bill creates the possibility of multiple potential Bible-centered courses from grade 9 through 12:  The Hebrew Scriptures and Old Testament, the New Testament, or some combination of them.  Rep. Daniels suggested, “No student would be forced to take any of these courses.”  She further insisted, “It doesn’t teach Christianity. It teaches from the Bible on history and culture. It’s a foundation of this country.”

The bill received quick support from the Christian Family Coalition based in Miami. The organization’s founder and executive director, Anthony Verdugo says, “We cannot deny the impact of the Bible on world history and humankind. This is about academics. This is about expanding one’s worldview.”  The Christian Family Coalition states that one of its organizational goals is to “Train Christian leaders for effective social and political action” including recommending judges, endorsing candidates and exposing the “homosexual agenda.”

Others have noted that while there is no issue teaching sacred texts in this manner, but also wonder why none  of the other world’s religious texts can be included, such as the Mahābhārata, Quran, or the Pāli Canon.  “Religious neutrality with just one book. That just doesn’t connect to me,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani (Dem) who represents parts of Orlando. “There’s a reason why we have separation of church and state in this country.”

Daniels argues, however, that this bill is consistent with education in other states.  Termed “Bible-Literacy”, other states have indeed adopted similar measures.  Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia are among them.  Similar bills have also been introduced in Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York and South Carolina.

The interest in this type of legislation has increased in recent years.  They also appear to have a common source: an initiative called “Project Blitz” of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. The purpose of the project is to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.”

Two other groups appear involved as well in the national trend.  The National Legal Foundation who’s proclaimed work is “Vigilantly protecting America’s legal system from being usurped to ends which run counter to God’s purposes” as well as “Using and gaining a broad acceptance of explicitly Biblical arguments in legal and policy debates.” The other group is “Wallbuilders”, an apparent media and advocacy site whose goal is to “exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena.”  The Wallbuilders group specifically states on their Facebook that their “Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush fought to never let the Bible be removed from schools.”

This is also not the first of such legislation in Florida to allow religion in public spaces. In June 2017, Florida passed a law allowing students to organize religious clubs and prayer groups during and after the school. Then Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law as the Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act.  Last year, the Florida legislature passed a law to display the motto, “In God We Trust” in “conspicuous” locations.

As for Daniels, this is not her first row confounding religion, history and public education. Daniels worked an earlier bill (HB 303) in 2017 titled “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act” that bans school districts from “discriminating against students, parents, and school personnel on basis of religious viewpoints or expression.” That bill was passed and signed in to by Gov. Scott as well.

Rep. Daniels is herself no personal stranger to controversy or Christian evangelism. She is the founder of Spoken Word Ministries that has churches in Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale. She has authored books on religion such as “The Demon Dictionary” and “Breaking the Power of Familiar Spirits” wherein she shares that she is a self-professed ‘demon buster’, ‘exorcist’ and ‘apostle’. Daniels has noted that Halloween candy is “prayed over by witches.”  In her past, she has noted that “Jews own everything” while also thanking God for slavery in an older sermon commenting, “If it wasn’t for slavery, I might be somewhere in Africa, worshiping a tree.”

The courts have yet to weigh in on these new laws. But many of them are apparently equally unnecessary.  The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Abington Township v. Schempp, upheld that “Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities… that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education”.  The Supreme Court case involved the presentation of Bible literacy in a non-neutral fashion.  In other words, the Supreme Court has affirmed that secular Bible education is permissible so long as there is no religious agenda.  So, the flow of recent Bible-Literacy legislation is confusing, given the Supreme Court decision leaving, and raise the question whether these laws and bills promote a more complicated agenda beyond educating children on Biblical narratives from a secular perspective.

Returning to the current Florida legislation, it is not clear if any or all of the aforementioned groups are involved in the current initiative; or if previous Supreme Court cases dissuade any re-affirmation of privileges that are already present. Despite the coordination in various jurisdictions and prior jurisprudence on these matters, Rep. Daniels has insisted that “This is a public policy issue, not a worship issue. Religion will not be pushed down their throat.”