In the USA, there’s a long-standing debate about whether Bibles should be in school classrooms. Certainly, parents may opt to send their children to private Christian or Catholic schools where students enroll in Religion classes, learning Christian theology and reading the Bible along the way. But, what about public schools?
The USA was founded firmly on the separation of the church and state. Early Puritan Pilgrims fled England because they were not able to practice their Christianity as they saw fit. In Britain, the Church of England and state were deeply intertwined. Our Founding Fathers not only wanted to protect the Puritan’s religious liberties, but all Americans’ freedom to worship however they saw fit. By making government institutions like schools secular, Americans would be protected from a tyrannical government seeking to force a religion upon the masses. From this historical context, it’s easy to understand the value of keeping religious education out of public American schools.
However, the secularization of public schools comes at a cost. The Bible, as well as the holy books of other religions, can help students better understand history, poetry, ancient cultures and modern faiths. By removing education featuring these texts, American students will not have a baseline understanding of a faith’s influence unless they learn about it in the home or in another outside community.
The debate continues here in America. However, we wanted to spotlight other countries that do allow the Bible in their schools, exploring the challenges that come along with this educational decision.
Germany is a traditionally Christian country and has had mandatory religious education in schools for a long time. However, the country is experiencing a growing secularization with an increasing group of parents seeking to take their kids out of religious education. Schools now also offer a compulsory ethics course for the students who have opted out of the religion course.
Approximately 85% of the Danish population consider themselves Evangelical Lutherans. The country recommends that students spend 30 hours a year (most years) studying religion. Parents may opt their children out of this coursework and Denmark does not have a uniform policy on if substitutive ethics courses should be offered for the children who opt out. Additionally, although students do not go through Christian coursework like Confirmation within school curriculum, Danish schools are willing to work with local churches to coordinate preparation time for these youth spiritual development programs.
Ireland is one of the most devout Christian countries in the Western world and 96% of primary schools are religious-run. Because of this, the vast majority of Irish children will use the Bible as a part of their schooling curriculum. Although most Irish people identify as Catholic or Christian, there is a growing group of non-religious children attending the dominant religious school system. Parents are beginning to push back on mandatory religious education, known locally as “divestment.” Non-religious parents express frustration that they must baptize their children into a faith they may not believe in simply to enroll in the Irish school system.
Norway is approximately 76% Christian and public primary schools all offer course work on the subject “Religion, Philosophies of Life and Ethics.” This course covers a variety of religions and philosophies and parents may choose to opt their children out of the class. Norway treats the content covered as strictly informational, without any associated preaching. Teachers are expected to cover all the religions and philosophies neutrally.
South Africa’s longstanding Calvinist ties set a norm for Christian education to be a part of the school curriculum. However, in 1994 when apartheid was overturned, the country also took a look at its policies on religious education. South Africa continues to offer religious curriculum, but has broadened the coursework to now cover all faiths.
Sweden considers religion to be an integral part of its broader social studies curriculum. Over the course of nine years, a Swedish student will spend 800 hours learning social subjects, covering religion, history and geography. Swedish law requires that the teachers avoid showing any favoritism towards a particular religious view while teaching. Unlike many other countries, Sweden does not allow parents to opt their children out of this coursework because they feel that their religious curriculum is taught in an extremely neutral way.
Yes, we know of course that Kentucky is not its own country. However, it is the first US state to legalize the integration of the Bible into public curriculum; a recent passage in the summer of 2018. The state now offers elective courses on Bible and Hebrew Literature. However, the law was not passed without criticism. The ACLU of Kentucky felt that some of the courses went beyond a strictly academic approach. After obtaining course material from various Kentucky school districts, the ACLU claimed that some classes were being taught as devotional study, rather than literature.
In recent years, similar bills have been considered in Tennessee, Iowa, Alabama, West Virginia, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and Virginia. If public schools treat the Bible as a strictly literary book and the course as an elective, it is quite possible that Bibles will legally begin appearing in American schools beyond Kentucky in the future.