A bill that would require public high schools to offer an elective Bible study course cleared the House Pre K-12 Quality Subcommittee this week. Its sponsor, Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, is adamant her measure is constitutional.
Daniels says her bill’s constitutionality is based on a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, as long as the courses are taught “objectively.”
“House Bill 195 protects constitutional rights of students to be free from impermissible religious instruction by requiring an objective study of the Bible that does not convert or evangelize students,” Daniels said.
Daniels said that means curriculum created by her bill would have to follow state and federal guidelines regarding religious neutrality.
Despite that, one of her colleagues disagrees. Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, was one of the three Democrats who cast a ‘no’ vote.
“I did find nine federal court decisions, including one from Florida, ruling that public school Bible courses were unconstitutional in whole or in part,” Webb said. “In Gibson v. Lee County, which is a decision from the Middle District of Florida – my district – the court invalidated a Bible history course of the New Testament because it could not conceive how the resurrection of miracles could be taught as secular history.”
Some committee members pointed out different versions of the Bible are used in various religions. Daniels says students could choose between translations.
Daniels said, “A student can choose whichever Bible translation – Hebrew [the Old Testament] or the New Testament – that they would like to study.”
But Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, challenged the religious “objectivity” and “neutrality” of courses that are based on a single religious text.
Eskamani also asked Daniels about texts from other religions.
“My family is Iranian-American. My family identifies with Islam,” Eskamani said. “Would you consider adding the Quran to your bill to be a friendly amendment, as another holy book that can be taught ‘objectively,’ to your language?”
Daniels replied simply, “No.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said students can benefit from the Bible’s historical offerings.
“If there are students that want to take this, and they want to learn the Bible from a historical perspective, you can learn a lot of history from the Bible,” Latvala said. “Secular history as well as religious history.”
Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, who ultimately voted yes, was among those concerned about how school districts would cover the cost of additional required courses.
“Is there a funding mechanism that’s going to follow this, either in a separate bill or later on, to help the schools pay for the curriculum?” he asked.
Daniels, without going into specifics, replied, “No, not at this time.”
Several representatives are also asking Daniels to modify the bill because the statute it looks to change does not apply to charter schools.
The measure is now before the Pre K-12 appropriations subcommittee. It doesn’t have a companion in the state Senate.
A Duval County Public Schools spokeswoman said it’s too early to comment on Daniels’ legislation.
WJCT News’ Abukar Adan contributed reporting.