Arizona Education

04.18.12

Governor Brewer Throws Arizona Base a Bone by Signing Bible Law

After vetoing a bill that would have permitted guns in schools, the governor moves to placate disappointed Tea Partiers by approving a law allowing schools to offer a course on how the Bible influences Western culture.

This week, Arizona’s politically savvy Gov. Jan Brewer infuriated her Tea Party-leaning conservative base by vetoing a bill allowing Arizonans to pack guns on school campuses, and in public libraries, courthouses, and other governmental buildings. In her strong veto letter, Gov. Jan said the proposed measure is too dangerous and expensive. She wanted stakeholders to collaborate as they redrafted the bill.

This doesn’t sound like the same governor who signed a controversial abortion-ban bill into law just days ago.  But Brewer is walking a political tightrope—caught between appeasing the conservative base in Arizona and serving a Republican Party that needs to woo moderates to win the presidential election. What’s more, she was an early endorser of Mitt Romney and is likely in line for vice-presidential consideration.

All this explains why, on the same day Brewer vetoed the gun bill, she threw her disgruntled base a meaty bone by signing a “Bible bill” into law.

Under the new Bible law, Arizona’s school districts and charter schools will soon be allowed to offer a publicly-funded high-school elective course on how the Bible influences Western culture.

The course would, among other things, educate students on the influence of the Old and New Testament on laws, history, morals, government, literature, art, music, customs, values, and culture. 

The textbook, of course, is the Bible. The law says the student, not the school district or teacher, gets to pick the version or translation.

Brewer signed the Bible law about two years after she signed a previous measure that greased the removal of Latino studies in a Tucson school district. The ethnic-studies law was pushed forward by former Arizona Department of Education chief Tom Horne, who is now Arizona’s attorney general. Horne said the Tucson ethnic-studies classes taught Mexican-Americans to view whites as their historic oppressors.

Video screenshot

Both education laws are widely viewed by Arizona liberals as a sign of pandering to the conservative base.

Oddly, there’s no legal reason for the Bible law to exist. Classes examining the influence of religion on civilizations are already protected if teachers don’t proselytize in public-school classrooms, says Don Pochoda, legal director of the Arizona branch of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union.

But the Arizona ACLU, which heartily lobbied against the Arizona version, fears the seemingly benign Bible law could be abused by Christian teachers who want to preach Christianity in the classroom.

Of particular concern, says Anjali Abraham, the public-policy director for the Arizona ACLU, is a clause that grants teachers “immunity from civil or disciplinary action.”

The new law appears to make an end run around an older Arizona statute that makes it illegal for publicly-salaried teachers to preach religion on state time.

But under Brewer’s law, if a parent or kid accuses a teacher of unconstitutional proselytizing, the teacher is immune from litigation or getting fired if he or she can demonstrate a “good faith” following of course guidelines set out by the Arizona Department of Education. (The new law says the board must ensure the class is constitutional and maintains “religious and non-religious neutrality.”)

Arizona is the ninth state to pass such a law, Abraham says, and so far, three states (Florida, Texas and Idaho) have been found by courts to teach the class in an unconstitutional manner.

“Our concern is, no matter how you construct the bill, when it is put into the classroom, problems arise,” Abraham says.

Supporters say students are deprived if they don’t understand the derivation of commonly used phrases, such as “an eye for an eye.”

Such laws are exceedingly difficult to monitor, given the number of state-funded classes that might crop up. Still, if teachers proselytize in Arizona’s public high schools and charter schools, the Arizona ACLU will consider suing on constitutional grounds, she adds.

The ACLU is “anti-Christian,” counters the Arizona bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Terri Proud, a former paralegal.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what you can and can’t do in schools,” Proud says. She says she sponsored the bill so students could understand that “how the Bible has influenced society is who America is.”

Students are deprived, she adds, if they don’t understand the derivation of commonly used phrases, such as “an eye for an eye,” or “on the road to Damascus.”

As Proud’s bill made its way through the Arizona Senate and House, two amendments were proposed to broaden the curriculum by adding other religious texts—such as the Book of Mormon, Hindu writings, and the Quran—to the reading list.

Those amendments were struck down, Proud says, because the Bible, with its influence on multiple cultures, was plenty enough to study.

Camp Jan Brewer, in the meantime, assures all that the new Bible-civ class will be constitutional and above board.

“The Bible is the world’s most published book,” says Matthew Benson, Gov. Brewer’s spokesman. “It has had significant influence on the founding and development of the United States of America.” 

Brewer signed the law to give students the “option” of studying the “content, history, literary style, and structure, and influence of the Old and New Testaments on American history,” he says.

Asked if Brewer inked the law to placate an angry conservative base that’s red-hot angry about the gun law veto, Benson answers: “The governor always is guided by doing what she thinks is right.”