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Bill would mandate Bible study

Last modified: 2/3/2012 12:00:00 AM
George Washington has a Biblical phrase etched on his tomb. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that all rights come not from a government or king but from a "Creator."

These men and the other founding fathers of America were profoundly influenced by the Christian Bible, and in order to understand United States history, students need to read and study it, according to a bill before the House Education Committee yesterday.

"The Holy Bible is the bedrock of Western civilization. Love it or hate it, it's in every aspect of humanity," said sponsor Rep. Jerry Bergevin of Manchester.

Bergevin's bill would require all schools to offer an elective social studies course in Bible studies, where students would examine the Old Testament, the New Testament or both, and learn "biblical content, characters, poetry and narratives that are the prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, morals, oratory and public poetry."

Currently, the only state prescription for social studies electives is that students must take a half-credit of world history, geography or global studies to graduate.

Members of the committee and several members of the public spoke against the bill itself and various pieces of it.

Rep. JR Hoell of Dunbarton asked if Bergevin would accept amendments that might make the bill "more amenable to the Constitution." Several speakers said they like the idea of encouraging - not requiring - districts to offer such a course, avoiding the appearance of overstepping the bounds of local control.

"I support having an elective course like this. But I don't understand why we should mandate it at the state level," said Rep. Kathleen Lauer-Rago, a Franklin Republican.

Co-sponsor Rep. Sue DeLemus, a Rochester Republican, said schools need a requirement from the state "so it's safe for all schools to feel comfortable offering this course."

For Garrett Lear, a pastor from Wakefield who testified at the hearing, the issue is bigger than that.

Teaching the importance of the Bible and Christianity on early American politics is more important than teaching the Bible as literature or even trying to preach to students, he said.

"The issue is not trying to teach religion, but to talk about what is the true history of America whether some people like it or not," he said.

Philosophy aside, Dean Michener, director of government affairs for the New Hampshire School Boards Association, asked the committee to think with the state's pocketbook.

In requiring that all schools offer a new course, "the state needs to pay for it," he said.

Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, also spoke against what she called "a dreadful little bill."

"First of all, it's a mandate and against the idea of local control. But schools already have the full authority to offer comparative religion courses or to use the Bible as a work of literature in a comparative literature class," Ebel said.

"This is a specific attempt to hold one religion over others and hold a religion over no religion. That's constitutionally prohibited," she said.

Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, agreed.

Schools that choose to design a course around the Bible and exclude the sacred texts of other religions "would be inviting a legal challenge," he said.

When asked whether his goal would be fulfilled by courses in comparative religions, Bergevin emphatically and repeatedly said no.

"It's the foundation of our republic. The Bible. It's as simple as that," he said.

Timothy Chrysostom of Canterbury, who testified at the hearing, said Bergevin's testimony made the bill's true aim clear to him.

"This is a plainly religiously-motivated bill written in such a way to carefully obscure that fact," Chrysostom said. "I do believe it is essential knowledge for students. . . But the history of the Roman Empire is at least as crucial to the history of the country, and that might even be a better mandate. There'd be no constitutional problem there."

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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