Last week, two West Virginia legislative committees, one in the House of Delegates, the other in the Senate, took up bills at the same time on the same day with almost the same wording.
The subject of the legislation that warranted such attention? Saying county public school systems may offer Bible classes in their schools: Old Testament, New Testament or both.
Islamic Association of West Virginia Vice President Ibtesam Sue Barazi said that specifically teaching or discussing just the Bible automatically discriminates against children of other faiths, or no faith.
“Those girls who wear the hijab, such as myself, they already feel discrimination, isolation and demonization from other children and, sometimes, from some teachers as well,” she said at a hearing Monday on the House bill. “So we don’t need to have them pointed out when they choose not to choose this class.”
House Bill 4780, which has Delegate Kevan Bartlett, R-Kanawha, as its lead sponsor, is scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the full House.
Senate Bill 38 is scheduled for passage Tuesday by the full Senate, though Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, offered a successful amendment that removed references to the Old and New testaments.
Both Bartlett and Baldwin are pastors.
Instead, SB 38 now says counties may offer “an elective social studies course on sacred texts or comparative world religions.”
On Monday, Delegates Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, and John Doyle, D-Jefferson, tried amending the House bill to make it mirror the Senate version. But 53 delegates opposed the change, killing it.
Most of those 53 were Republicans, but they were joined by Delegates Brent Boggs, D-Braxton; Nathan Brown, D-Mingo; Dave Pethtel, D-Wetzel; Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan; Robert Thompson, D-Wayne; Tim Tomblin, D-Logan; and Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley.
Bartlett spoke against the amendment, saying it “ignores the basic premise of the bill, which is this: that the Bible is the most influential and significant book of all human history — apart from its religious and theological implications.”
“The amendment — since it does not define what these plural sacred texts are — the sacred texts could mean almost any writing,” Bartlett said, “and so we’re going to offer a course of any writing that someone thinks is sacred.”
“Perhaps even the writings of The New York Times would be considered by some as sacred,” he said. Or, he said, Scientology or Adolf Hitler’s writings could be considered sacred by some.
Pushkin is Jewish.
Rabbi Victor Urecki, of B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, said at Monday’s public hearing that he realizes the irony of speaking against a bill that promotes a text he reveres.
“It’s because in this country we affirm the dignity and the worth and respect of every human being,” Urecki said. He said he can’t “stand by when our sacred texts are used, even with the best of intentions, in a way that would marginalize students of different faiths and say that one text, one sacred text, is more important or sacred than another.”
Both chambers will have to agree on the same version of the bill before it can head to the governor for his signature or veto.
Joey Wiseman, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Middle and Secondary Learning, said courses under either bill would be eligible to count as one of the four social studies credits high-schoolers must obtain to graduate.
When senators discussed a Bible classes bill in 2018, Education Department General Counsel Heather Hutchens said counties already were allowed to offer those classes “if the course was voluntary and from a historical perspective only.”
Wiseman said counties must submit the learning standards for such courses to the education department, which he said then reviews the standards to ensure they’re actually social studies and there are enough standards to justify awarding a whole credit.
American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia Policy Director Eli Baumwell said that, in practice, these courses can move from constitutional to unconstitutional with “a few offhand comments” or a “dismissive attitude” when discussing interpretations — even with a clear curriculum.
“These programs are a tightrope that few can actually walk,” Baumwell said during Monday’s public hearing. He said he’s afraid the bill will give a “green light” to counties to create these classes.
After the House bill was introduced, it only went through the House Education Committee, which passed it to the full House floor last week in a voice vote with no nays heard.
It didn’t go to the House Judiciary Committee.
The Senate version did go to both the Education and Judiciary committees on that side. It was in Judiciary that Baldwin successfully changed it to remove the Bible references.