What Odessa, Texas, Parents Say about Religious Bible Teachings in Public Schools
Moreno v. Ector County School Board is a lawsuit that was brought by the parents of school-age children who object to the board's decision to teach a religious Bible class in two high schools in Odessa, Texas. Here are their stories.
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I joined this lawsuit because I do not believe a public school should instruct my children or their classmates on religious beliefs. It is my role as a mother to teach my children about religion. We are a Catholic family and we attend mass nearly every Sunday. My children also attend catechism every Wednesday night. That is the religious instruction I have chosen for my children. What I expect from the school district is to provide my three children with a well-rounded education to help them prepare to get into college or find jobs.
I have lived in Odessa, for 34 years, I was born and raised here. I graduated from Permian High School in 1991. I have three children Isla (15), Carina (10) and Santana (8). My kids will be attending local high school and I want them to receive the best education possible. As a religious person, I also want my kids to be able to explore their religious faith on their own terms, but not at school where they may feel pressure to believe a certain way from their teachers or other classmates. The school district is putting its stamp of approval on this one course, and the kids see that. There is already so much peer pressure in high school. The school district shouldn't add to that by making some kids feel like outsiders because they don't practice the same religion.
I firmly believe that there are other subjects or other skills that the schools can teach to prepare my children for the future, then to preach to them from a Protestant viewpoint bible class.
My son Tommy Lee is 12 years old and my daughter Briana is 7. Tommy Lee is very interested in sports, especially football and baseball, and his favorite subject is science. He will soon enroll in high school and I want to make sure he has access to the best courses — ones that will help him get ahead in life. I don't want the school to spend limited resources to preach to my son. That is what my church is for.
I am a Catholic and I regularly attend church with my family. The Bible courses being taught at Odessa and Permian come from a Protestant viewpoint. At Permian, the class is being taught by someone who was a Baptist missionary. I think this clearly shows a preference in the school district for this religious belief and I don't think that's an appropriate message to send to our kids.
It's fine if kids want to get together to study the Bible. I'm all for that. What I'm not for is using tax dollars and public school resources to push an agenda.
I am an active member of my community and I care deeply about what happens in our schools.
I have chosen to be a part of this lawsuit because I feel the school district should focus on basic curriculum like reading, writing and arithmetic. It is one thing to teach the Bible as literature or as part of a history or religion course but the class currently being taught is not an academic one. The contents of the course have been closely guarded, but reports say that the class is almost entirely devotional in nature. It is part of a sectarian religious agenda that violates the principles of separation of church and state. As a former educator and as a parent, I feel strongly that a faith based curriculum does not belong in our public schools.
Religion is a private matter; one that should be left to individuals and families. It is the duty of the school district to provide our students with the knowledge and tools they need in order to be engaged citizens in our democracy, it is the duty of parents and families to provide them with the training and tools they need to make personal decisions about faith.
KAREN PIEPER HILDEBRAND
I am a native Odessan and care very much about my community as evidenced by all the volunteer work I've done, including the Health Advisory Committee for Ector County ISD, Junior Achievement, Rape Crisis Center, Junior League of Odessa, and Christmas in Action. My three children all went to Odessa public schools.
Religion is very important to me. In fact, I am an ordained Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA and am a member at Westminster Presbyterian in Odessa. I have been a long time Sunday school teacher and currently co-teach a class for college students with my husband and additionally serve as a youth sponsor for our 1st-6th grade group called Just for Kids. I've participated as an adult sponsor on most of the mission trips our church youth group takes every summer to repair homes for the elderly.
However, I believe that the appropriate place to be studying the King James Version of the bible is in Sunday school and church - not a class in a public school. Religion is very personal, and the proper place for it to be addressed is at Sunday school and church and home. Even though the school bible class is an elective, it is still inappropriate.
Instead of putting resources into bible classes, I would like to see the school board focus on improving the education our students receive. I have a huge interest in education (the No Child Left Behind legislation was the subject of my research project for my Masters degree), and I believe that the education we provide for our children in Texas and in particular Ector County is shameful. I found that particularly frustrating as a parent of three sons going through the Ector County school system. Our drop-out rates are high and it seems to me that our local school district has little interest in helping the students who struggle with their education. That's what the School Board should be focusing on, not preaching the bible.
DOUGLAS C. HILDEBRAND
I became involved in this lawsuit because I am very concerned about the leadership of the Ector County Independent School District and the decision to teach a bible course in the public schools based on the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools curriculum.
Religion is very important to me in my personal life. In fact, I am an ordained deacon and elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, and I worship and serve at Westminster Presbyterian Church here in Odessa. My children were confirmed there and we have been members there for almost 20 years.
But while religion is very important to our family, I do not think that children should be learning religion, or the bible, in a sectarian manner in the public schools. There is not a lot of transparency around the bible course in our schools, but it seems that a faith based curriculum is used, not a scientific one. It seems like a church has invaded our school system — and it's not my church!
Instead of pushing religious classes, the school system should be providing the students with much needed education in other areas. The schools should be focused on teaching the students critical thinking, and training them to be skilled with their minds and hands. For instance, we need welders, mechanics, machinists, people in the building trades, etc.; more resources should be spent on teaching vocational skills.
Maybe the reason students drop out is because they are not learning the things that would be useful to them. The schools should focus on providing those kinds of classes, and let the kids learn the bible in a church of their choosing.
My daughter is Jewish; she attends Bowie Jr. High, and has already been the recipient of taunts based on other kids' perception of an unfamiliar religion. She has even been told she'd burn in Hell if she didn't "find" Christ. The taunting is not unexpected; but I worry what will happen if the kids' misbehavior is reinforced by a Christian advocacy course endorsed by the school district itself.
Make no mistake; the course is not merely (as some have claimed) a neutral survey of the Bible's influence on Western culture. Professor Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, who has conducted an exhaustive analysis of the materials created by the National Council, has concluded that the aim of the course is primarily devotional, that the scholarship is often shoddy, and that the course's creators work under a pervasive cloak of secrecy. I have had repeatedly to file open records requests in order to get basic information about the course; the media have been barred from entering classes. I don't know of any other course where the curriculum is guarded so jealously.
Secrecy surrounding issues of faith is particularly disturbing to people who have in the past had to keep their faith a secret. I have the deepest respect for people who openly display true piety in their daily lives; it is they who show (not tell) their children how to live kind and thoughtful lives. But I've been disturbed by what seems a community's rush to embrace Bible-based proselytizing at public schools. Why is such a course needed? Why will the community be taught only one group's interpretation of the origin, purpose, and influence of Christianity? If it's because America is primarily a Christian country, then the course is superfluous. If it's because America is not as Christian as some would like to see it become, then the course does serve an evangelical purpose.
We challenge this course not because we are against religion, but because we believe that a family's religious beliefs are a personal matter; when such matters are broached in public school, the greatest care must be exercised. The curriculum in use in Odessa wants so badly to create a narrative of shared Protestant origins that no care is given to preserving the integrity of religious traditions that do not easily fit within that Protestant narrative. I have closely read the NCBCPS curriculum, and its promotional material. A clear and insistent thesis is advanced about this country: it was founded by and for Protestants, and is now imperiled by studies of other world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are mentioned) and by secularists whose pluralism and acceptance of religious diversity have been parts of an ongoing assault on America's core values (values that the NCBCPS argues can only be reclaimed by studying their version of the Bible their way.)
The course — "The Bible in History and Literature" — is in my judgment also pedagogically flawed: given its own simplistic methodologies, it is unlikely to produce better students of literature or history. The connections between American history and Christianity are richer, but far more complex, than those prescribed by the course's advocates
To be effective, a course about the Bible should reflect the schisms, the profound disagreements, out of which our various notions of that Book emerged. This course asserts that one Bible has influenced all of our histories, all of our literatures. But the course never allows "Bible" to be a work like other literature, a thing shaped by and product of a larger and more complex history. Ultimately, the National Council course treats the Bible as an artifact generative of our history and literature, not an artifact in any way engendered by that history or that literature. When the object of a course of study is the stuff of someone's revelation (no matter how sublime — and it IS sublime), the course of study is devotional in nature.
But what would a good Bible course look like? The Bible's importance comes from the fact that, through its richness and depth, it has managed to give meaning to such a variety of different, even divergent faiths for so long: to Jews, Christians, Muslims, and yes, even to doubters. A good course would show this, and if it had any value as history, it also would teach what scripture means to each group, and why. A student who could place the Bible in this context would be even more awestruck at the Bible's miraculously durable legacy, regardless of his/her own faith.
I volunteered to serve on the school district's curriculum committee to help find such a course. I began doing research so that I could ask informed questions.
Even just one summer of research, however, led me to strong doubts about the curriculum ultimately chosen by my school board, that of the NCBCPS. Despite nominal gestures toward objectivity, it privileges a narrowly Protestant perspective on scripture, sidelines other perspectives the more they diverged from this, and often omits contradicting information. Just as troubling is its portrayal of our Founding Fathers as Christians writing a scripturally inspired Constitution and claiming a Biblical basis for American law, a portrayal ignoring an overwhelming body of historical research. Even a brief perusal of internet sources would raise serious doubts about this portrayal, if one chose to look. In short, this curriculum not only fell far short of my own hopes, but had troubling flaws which added up to systematic bias.
I would welcome a Bible curriculum. But this curriculum's deliberate biases and indifferent scholarship are serious enough to raise disturbing issues for me about its suitability and legality.