Oklahoma state superintendent requires Bible education in schools

Oklahoma schools’ superintendent mandated on Thursday that districts statewide integrate the Bible “as an instructional support into the curriculum” for grades 5 through 12, emphasizing its significance as a historical document.

“Adherence to this mandate is compulsory,” stated Superintendent Ryan Walters. “Further instructions for monitoring and reporting on this implementation for the 2024/25 school year will be forthcoming. Immediate and strict compliance is expected.”

The decision sparked opposition from certain Democratic lawmakers and organizations advocating for the separation of church and state.

During the monthly state board of education meeting, Walters unveiled that he had dispatched the letter as he had displayed a stack of five books – three of which were different renditions of the Bible. Although a copy of the letter was not provided, Walters’ spokesman distributed a news release to local and state media. The letter was later obtained by The Oklahoman from an alternate source.

Walters’ directive coincided with the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling two days earlier, which deemed a contract between the Statewide Virtual School Charter Board and St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School illegal under both state and federal law. Although unrelated to the legal case, Walters strongly criticized the court’s verdict.

Citing broad authority outlined in Title 70 of Oklahoma Statutes, which governs state education, Walters justified his order. A segment of the law specifies: “School districts shall exclusively determine the instruction, curriculum, reading lists and instructional materials and textbooks, subject to any applicable provisions or requirements as set forth in law, to be used in meeting the subject matter standards. School districts may, at their discretion, adopt supplementary student assessments which are in addition to the statewide student assessments.”

In a press release, Walters underscored that his directive is “in alignment” with the educational standards approved in May 2019. This was when the Oklahoma’s education department revised its social studies standards under Joy Hofmeister, who was then the state superintendent of schools.

“Oklahoma law already explicitly allows Bibles in the classroom and enables teachers to use them in instruction,” stated the office of the state’s attorney general in a released statement.

Describing the Bible as “one of the most historically significant books and a cornerstone of Western civilization, along with the Ten Commandments,” in his letter, Walters stressed its importance in history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, and its influence on the nation’s founders and the foundational principles of the Constitution.

He expressed, “This is not merely an educational directive but a crucial step in ensuring our students grasp the core values and historical context of our country.”

Walters mentioned that the state education department might provide teaching materials for Bible instruction “to ensure uniformity in delivery.” A group criticizing Walters’ decision was the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Adam Soltani, the executive director of CAIR-OK, asserted, “We adamantly oppose any requirements that religion be forcefully taught or required as a part of lesson plans in public schools, in Oklahoma, or anywhere else in the country. Religious freedom, as outlined in the Constitution, allows for the academic instruction of religion in subjects such as geography, social studies, and history. To require religious scripture, regardless of which one it may be, to be incorporated into lessons in our schools, however, is a clear violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause and infringes on the rights of our students and their families.”

State Rep. Mickey Dollens, representing Oklahoma City and a vocal critic of Walters, called attention to Oklahoma’s low standing in national education rankings and indicated that the superintendent’s focus should be directed elsewhere.

“Requiring a Bible in every classroom does not improve Oklahoma’s ranking in 49th in education,” Dollens told The Oklahoman. “Ryan Walters should focus on educating students, not evangelizing them.”

Two Democratic members of an education committee in the state legislature, Melissa Provenzano and John Waldron, advised school districts to cautiously assess implementing the order.

“Following this new directive from the State Superintendent of Education, we advise school districts to carefully review and follow existing state law when it comes to religious instruction in schools,” said Provenzano. “We know from the outcome of SQ 790 that Oklahomans are overwhelmingly against using public dollars to fund religious purposes. The Oklahoma Constitution is very clear on what is allowed when it comes to public education.

“Religious instruction should begin with and remain in the rightful hands of parents and guardians. Today’s directive feels like an unprecedented attempt from the State Superintendent to distract from the reported investigations into financial mismanagement of tax dollars meant to support our schools.”

Rachel Laser, president and chief executive officer of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized Walters’ order as “textbook Christian Nationalism.”

“Walters is abusing the power of his public office to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else’s children,” she said.

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