29 January 2019

A bill requiring North Dakota public schools to teach Bible classes has failed in the state senate.

Senate Bill 2136 was introduced by Republican North Dakota Senator and Minot insurance broker Oley Larsen on January 3. It was described as “an Act to amend and reenact sections 15.1-21-02 and 15.1-21-02.2 of the North Dakota Century Code, relating to public and nonpublic high schools offering elective instruction on the Bible,” which would require schools offer “one half unit of the old testament [sic] of the Bible or new testament [sic] of the Bible, or one-half unit covering both the old and new testaments [sic] of the Bible.”

The North Dakota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said that the measure was “blatantly unconstitutional” and would have led to litigation if it had been approved by the Legislature.

Larsen and his fellow sponsors, Republican members Jordan Kannianen, Jim Kasper, and Aaron McWilliams maintained that they were asking for Bible classes only as history electives. Said McWilliams, “What the bill does do is if a school wants to have a historical Bible class, not a religious-based class, but historical-based literature or text that has formed the society that we are in, or at least has had, we can argue a big impact on it, right? Well, then that’s what they can learn about. Just like they did a class on Shakespeare or anything else.… If you really want to understand the history of the United States you really need to understand the philosophy of the Bible and the Christian faith. By any means, it doesn’t mean the school needs to push it as a philosophy for your life, but it’s still our history.”

The bill made no provision for other religions or sacred books. North Dakota School Board Association (NDSBA) Executive Director Alexis Baxley admitted that, “public schools can legally offer religious education so long as it is from a historical perspective and not focused on an individual religion.” However “requiring districts to offer a class focused on one religion’s texts would likely be considered state sponsored religion and a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. For districts to not be at risk of lawsuits, they would need to offer classes in a variety of religious faiths. As it is, many districts in North Dakota have a hard time recruiting and retaining teachers for required subjects like science and math. It would likely be very difficult for districts to find licensed teachers to teach religion.”

NDSBA opposed SB2136. On January 25, it was rejected by the senate by a vote of 42 to 5.

The North Dakota Century Code has a section enacted in 1890, that lists reading of the Bible as optional. It may be read in class for up to 10 minutes each day, though “a teacher may not require a student to be present in class when the Bible is being read and may not require that a student read the Bible if doing so is contrary to the wishes of the student’s parent.” This portion of the ND Century Code has never been changed, though according to the code itself it “has the potential to raise some significant First Amendment issues.”

Primary sponsor Larsen, according to his Facebook page, is a Christian, a fan of Americans for Prosperity, and supports President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association.

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