The West Virginia Senate passed 30-3 Wednesday a bill saying county school systems may offer Bible classes in public high schools, sending the legislation to the governor for his signature or veto.
Only Sens. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier; William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio; and Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, voted no. Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, was absent.
When senators discussed a Bible classes bill in 2018, West Virginia Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchens said counties already were allowed to offer those classes “if the course was voluntary and from a historical perspective only.” Education officials may allow the optional course to count as one of the four social studies credits high schoolers must obtain to graduate.
This year’s legislation, House Bill 4780, includes a line saying a point of the course is to teach “knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding the development of American society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”
Wednesday’s passage vote was a twist. Senators previously removed the Bible references from an almost identical bill, changing it to say counties may offer a course “on sacred texts or comparative world religions.”
Last week, senators unanimously passed that bill to the House of Delegates.
The House had put forth its own Bible classes legislation and shot down some delegates’ attempt to turn that bill into the broader Senate version.
The House passed its version to the Senate on a 73-26 vote. At the start of this week, the Senate fast-tracked that version, which references only the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament and the New Testament, and passed it Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Baldwin, a pastor, offered the same amendment senators had approved before: allowing courses on sacred texts or comparative world religions.
“Just six days ago, this body passed this exact language 34-0 — hope that’s the case again,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin noted the bill doesn’t mention the Quran, Book of Mormon or other religious texts and even though it mentions “the Hebrew Scriptures,” it uses that term interchangeably with the Old Testament.
That “devalues the faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters,” who don’t see their scriptures as “antiquated” or less than the New Testament, he said. His amendment promotes understanding of other religions and helps students know better their own faith, he added.
“An elective course increasing religious literacy ... is a careful approach to enhancing understanding,” Baldwin said, “so let’s be careful. Let’s make room for all faith groups in West Virginia and let’s pass this amendment — again.”
Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, rose in opposition.
“A lot of us didn’t understand completely what the amendment did,” he said. “This amendment would undermine the intent of the bill and the meaning of the bill, which is simply to codify the permissibility of specifically teaching the Bible in schools.”
Azinger called the Bible “the foundation of Western Civilization and the foundation of America.”
The amendment failed. Fourteen Democrats and Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voted for it. The other 19 Republicans voted against it.