Legislature

CHARLESTON — Efforts to put the Bible back into public schools as a course of study and to allow home-schoolers to play public school sports have defined education policy efforts in this year’s 60-day legislative session – which came to a close Saturday night.

Lawmakers passed a law dubbed the “Bible Bill,” allowing local county boards of education to offer an elective course of instruction of the Bible. Despite one senator’s efforts to broaden the bill and the course offering, including the study of any sacred text or comparative religion, lawmakers voted to pass it in its original form.

It started as two different bills, one proposed by the House of Delegates and one by the Senate; both versions passed out of the respective chambers. The Senate voted overwhelmingly, at first, to include other religions and texts into the law. But once the House’s version came through, senators voted against the amendment.

The “Bible Bill” was a result of an advocacy group called the West Virginia Legislative Prayer Caucus, part of a national group called the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. Del. Kevin Bartlett, R-Kanawha, who was appointed to the Legislature by Gov. Jim Justice in October 2019, was the lead sponsor of the “Bible Bill,” and serves as the senior pastor at Maranatha Baptist Church in Kanawha County.

According to the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation’s website, members of the caucus worked to protect religious freedom and preserve Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer.

The House’s version of the bill made it through, and the Senate’s version was stalled in committee, never given its chance in the House. When it comes to questioning why the change of heart in voting for an amendment to broaden the law, Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, the senator who originally fought for the law to include any sacred text or religion, has a few opinions on the matter.

Baldwin said the Senate, eventually, chose to go with the bill that was most beneficial for them politically. Their choice, Baldwin said, was not about public policy.

“In Senate Judiciary, I think we all realized the policy of the bill needed to be more broad, and once that sunk in, I think they realized broadening it wasn’t going to fit their political purpose — which was to say they brought the Bible back in schools,” Baldwin told The Register-Herald. “It went away from what they wanted the original intent to be, which was all about the Bible.”

Baldwin, who is a Christian pastor, said he would have voted for the bill had it included his amendment — to include any sacred text or comparative religion. He said if the amendment would have been included in the bill, it would have been good for society.

However, he said, in good faith, he could not vote for it.

“It is my religion, yes, but that’s not democratic,” he said.

Rabbi Victor Urecki, of Charleston’s B’nai Jacob Synagogue, spoke passionately against the bill before lawmakers, and was content when it included the amendment to include the study of sacred texts or comparative religions. Of the legislation that passed and is now awaiting Gov. Jim Justice’s signature to become law, Rabbi Urecki says it will step on toes.

Those who classify as Christians often refer to parts of the Bible as “The New Testament” and “The Old Testament,” and when teaching a course on the Bible, Urecki said these terms are deemed offensive to some who aren’t part of the Christian faith.

Religious expressions and words often reflect culture and religious understandings, Urecki told The Register-Herald. For Jewish people, their sacred text is called “Tanach,” an acronym for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), N’viim (the Prophets) and K’tuvim (the Writings). Those are the Hebrew texts defining their faith, he said.

“Christians called those same texts ‘The Old Testament,’ a reflection of how they define those books, namely as having been superseded by the New Testament. One can see how, unintentionally, a person using ‘Old Testament’ is actually disparaging what for us has not been supplanted,” Urecki said.

Depending on the cultural and religious understandings or translations, an instructor who may be teaching the course may find himself or herself unintentionally maligning or dismissing another religion or faith, Urecki added.

“For Christians, the Pharisees are not people of genuine good character and are portrayed as rather villainous. For Jews, the Pharisees are our heroes, the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism which guide us today,” he said. “A basic text such as the Ten Commandments are not even called the Ten Commandments in Judaism, do not follow the same numbering and even have significant translation deviations.

“The point is that using a sacred shared text like the Bible for instruction is not something that can be undertaken without a great amount of training, trepidation, and sensitivity and why it is better studied and explored in places of worship and individual homes and not in a public school setting.”

While many senators said they reluctantly voted for the law, feeling it may violate the Constitution, American Civil Liberties Union-West Virginia (ACLU) officials have expressed since the bill originated that legal action will likely take place if the course appears in a public school.

• • •

Another bill from this session involved an ongoing legislative fight for home-schooled students to be able to participate in public school sports and extracurricular activities. Although a bill was passed allowing those students to play, it was passed with stipulations — something with which home-school students and parents weren’t entirely happy.

A “Tim Tebow” bill has been on the legislative docket for several years. This year, lawmakers passed a bill to allow private school students to compete on public school teams — but only if they enroll in at least one public school virtual course.

While the law had other stipulations, including showing evidence of one’s academic progress, the main concern among home-schoolers was enrolling in the virtual course. Technically, if a home-schooler is enrolled in a virtual course through a public school, the student is counted in public school enrollment, as a public school student.

Although the bill wasn’t exactly what home-school parents have advocated for, Jamie Buckland, legislative liaison for Raleigh Educational Association of Christian Homeschoolers (REACH), said they settled.

Buckland said the state’s home-schoolers were torn over getting behind the bill. She had efforts to get the bill amended in hopes the virtual course provision would be removed, but House of Delegates leadership felt if that were to happen, the bill wouldn’t make it through.

“We settled,” Buckland said. “It was painful. I am convinced that the valid concerns of both sides were effectively addressed by the provisions in the bill without that virtual course mandate.

“I am struggling to understand the rationale behind the delegates wanting to remove children from face-to-face instruction to put them behind a screen for that mandatory course, all just for funding.”

Buckland said settling for virtual course provision meant asking home-schoolers to sacrifice unnecessarily so schools can get money.

“That flies in the face of my educational philosophy that money shouldn’t be more important than humans,” she said.

The bill will not officially be law until Gov. Justice signs it, and Buckland, who has been in touch with the governor’s staff, said she feels he plans to sign it.

“My work won’t necessarily change. We wanted participation without enrollment, so those efforts to remove that virtual course will continue this year.”

• • •

While some bills made their way all the way through legislation, some that could potentially help education specifically in southern West Virginia did not.

House Bill 4535 would have allowed more rural counties to recruit and hire aides to help with student support services. The bill would have created new student aide titles for school personnel, bringing in more support to students in school who don’t get as much as those in more urban counties.

During last year’s legislative session, the education reform bill passed, allocating an additional $30.5 million in grants to counties to hire additional professional student support personnel, and House Bill 4535 would have added employees who could have been hired using the specific funding.

Although the bill passed through several committees, it was ultimately removed from the calendar.

• • •

According to a UNICEF report, one in five U.S. children falls below the poverty line. In West Virginia, and 25.5 percent of students in the public school system live below that line, forcing them to rely heavily on breakfast and lunch at school.

House Bill 2794, a “Summer Feeding for All” program, was introduced this session, but it never made it out of committee. The program would have established a way for counties to feed students in need during summer and other non-school time periods.

Although the bill was introduced and passed out of the House Education Committee, it didn’t make it out of House Finance, never giving it a chance of a vote by the entire House.

• • •

In efforts to bring “basic life skills” back into the school, a bill requiring schools to implement a home economics course in secondary schools was passed overwhelmingly in the State Senate in January; however, it was never passed into law.

The bill would have required the State Board of Education to create a “family and consumer science” course, and stated people with an understanding of home economics can better perform everyday activities such as cooking, sewing, house cleaning, minor home repair, budgeting, and time management.

Although the bill passed the Senate, it never made it out of committee to be considered in the House.

• • •

House Bill 2775, which would have required each public high school student in West Virginia to complete a one-credit course of study in personal finance as a requirement for graduation, was removed from the legislative calendar a few days ago.

The bill stated the Legislature found people with an understanding of personal finance are better prepared to manage their money.

Although the bill was passed in the House, it was never fully taken up in the Senate.

Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jhatfieldRH

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