In a Sonora, Texas, public high-school classroom usually used to teach computer programming and physics, four students are getting Bible lessons from a teacher who doubles as a pastor.
“What change shall be made in our bodies at the resurrection?” teacher Clyde Dukes asked, reading from a textbook. “How does God keep our hearts and minds?”
Classes like the one at Sonora High were singled out in a January report by Mark Chancey, a religious-studies professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, as an example of how Texas schools provide unconstitutional Bible instruction. Chancey and civil-liberties groups say the class suggests students apply the Bible to their lives and doesn’t provide perspective on other faiths, violating the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.
“These classes too often promote religious values that aren’t appropriate academically,” Chancey said. “Public funds are being used to promote some religious views over others.”
Religion’s place in public schools is a decades-old debate, often focused on prayers at athletic events or other extracurricular activities. The for-credit Bible classes inject the question into the middle of the school day.
Dukes, 64, who for about 30 years has been a pastor at a Church of Christ near Sonora, disputes that his class promotes a religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 ruled that schools couldn’t require students to read the Bible. The court said religious courses can be taught “objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
Texas in 2007 required high schools to include study of the influence of the Bible and other religious literature. Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee adopted similar laws.
Most Texas schools have folded the subject into existing English or social-studies classes, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
However, in the 60 districts with standalone Bible courses, the state fails to properly train teachers, according to Chancey’s study of class materials. The state hasn’t properly vetted lesson plans, leaving districts to develop their own, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at Washington’s Newseum, which provides information about constitutional principles.
To comply with Texas law, courses must be history-based, accept diverse viewpoints and can’t favor a religion, said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Education Agency. The state hasn’t received complaints since the law was implemented in 2009, she said.
Texas is devout: It has the highest percentage of adherents of a religion among the nation’s 10 largest states, according to a 2010 study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, a Lenexa, Kansas-based organization that assembles a decennial census of church membership.
Most Texans want children to learn about the Bible, said state Representative Dan Flynn, a Republican who co-sponsored the 2007 law. Few schools offer the classes because of the possibility of lawsuits challenging them, he said.
“These courses get criticized by people who are concerned about political correctness,” Flynn said.
In the classroom in Sonora, a town of about 3,000 an hour and a half drive from the Mexican border, Bible study is an optional course on the Old Testament in the first half of the year and the New Testament in the second. Those in the 8:45 a.m. class all said they’re Christian.
On an April day, four students sat in rows at desktop computers as Dukes guided students line by line through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi. The apostle urged the Philippians to live humbly and focus on God, avoiding grumbling and arguing.
Student Mario Soto, 16, read Philippians 3:21 aloud. When Dukes posed his question from the textbook, called the Bible Study Course, students sat silent.
“This is one of the interesting questions in the Bible: What is it going to be like after our lives end?” said Dukes, who paced the front of the classroom. “The Bible doesn’t answer that directly, but it says it’s going to be very good. It says our body won’t be the same. But it will be glorious. There will be no sickness or disease.”
The Bible Study Course, a two-volume textbook, was produced in the 1920s and 1930s by ministers and teachers for Dallas public schools, according to a foreword by former city school Superintendent W.T. White. Schools and churches used the books for decades, with students earning high-school credit after completing a test, Chancey said. The texts haven’t been updated since 1946.
Dukes said he chose the Bible Study Course because it was cheaper than other books and asks direct questions on Bible teachings. He complies with state law by sharing his historical knowledge and not imposing personal views, he said.
The 42-year veteran said he has never had a Jewish or Muslim student.
Questions in the textbook derive naturally from Bible readings and don’t suggest a specific view, said David Barton, founder of WallBuilders LLC., which publishes the book. The Bible is essential for students to understand language and culture, said Barton, whom Time magazine in 2005 named as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the U.S.
Only five students are enrolled in Dukes’s course, down from 10 last year, when the 256-student school first offered it. It’s hard to fit electives around state-required math and reading classes, said Raul Chavarria, Sonora’s principal for nine years.
Chavarria said Sonora, whose economy is dominated by gas drilling and ranching, doesn’t have a synagogue or mosque. He said he trusts Dukes to follow the law.
Dukes awards each student an A grade if they take daily lecture notes in the class, which meets for 50 minutes four days a week. There are no tests.
“The textbook is just asking what the Bible says,” he said. “I leave any interpretation up to the students.”
Hagen Kennedy, an 18-year-old senior, said Dukes doesn’t impose his views.
“It offers a lot of moral and real-life lessons,” said Kennedy, a senior. “There’s a ton of references every day to generic situations such as loving your neighbor.”
The legality of Bible classes hasn’t been litigated in Texas since 2008, when eight parents and residents argued in Midland federal court that courses at two schools promoted Protestant Christianity. The Ector County School District agreed to stop using material created by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a private group in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the Ector parents, hasn’t filed suit against any other system because parents haven’t come forward as plaintiffs, said Daniel Mach, director of the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Support for a Bible class in Sonora stems from the town’s respect for Dukes, said Superintendent James Hartman. The local chamber of commerce named Dukes educator of the year in April.
“I trust his moral character and his integrity, and I know he’s touched a lot of lives,” Hartman said.