The Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged Morgan County Schools over Bible classes it may offer to comply with state law, saying the courses might not be taught "in a secular, religiously neutral manner."
“The decision to partner with a private, out-of-state Christian Bible college is alarming,” attorney Ryan Jayne of the Wisconsin-based group wrote in a letter to the school system Wednesday.
Jayne sent the letter a day after the school district held a public “information and registration” meeting at its headquarters on Alabama 67 in Priceville with representatives from Piedmont International University, which is a private college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The attorney said this is the first warning his organization has sent to an Alabama school system since the state Legislature passed laws requiring public schools to make available Bible study and religious history courses for grades 6-12 beginning Sept. 1.
Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said there has been a “big misunderstanding” about how Morgan County would proceed with making any Bible class available to students.
He said a public meeting was held with Piedmont representatives, but the only purpose of the meeting was to gauge the level of interest in offering the online class. Hopkins said several parents attended the meeting, but the school system does not have an agreement or partnership with Piedmont.
If Piedmont can meet the legal requirements and Morgan County decides to use the college, Hopkins said, the course would be offered as a dual enrollment online class “outside of school hours,” and students would be responsible for paying any fees associated with the class.
“We’re not sure if we can offer what they have, and people have jumped to conclusions,” the superintendent said.
Piedmont President Charles Petitt said Friday he believes what the college could offer to Morgan County students complies with the spirit of the law and that the class would be “100% online.” He, too, said the college does not have a signed agreement with the school district.
“We have not put together the entire curriculum,” Petitt said, adding that the only online course currently available to students would be Bible Overview, which gives an overview of each book and section in the Bible.
Piedmont, in a news release promoting the meeting held Tuesday at the central office, said its plan would be to offer a “pilot class” for 10 to 50 students to “establish interest and program effectiveness” before “rolling out systemwide registration opportunity” for students in the spring of 2020.
“The initial class is open to junior and senior level students and will offer college credit through dual enrollment,” the news release stated.
Decatur-area superintendents said they are trying to comply with two new laws relating to Bible classes.
Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, sponsored a bill that allows students, at their own expense, to take religious courses off campus during the school day and earn elective credit. Students must have their own transportation to and from the class.
A second bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, requires school systems to make available elective social studies courses on the Bible.
Melson was not available for comment, but last month said school districts have always been able to teach the history of the Bible, but some feared lawsuits. “This bill puts it into law,” he said.
The Alabama State Department of Education is required to develop guidelines and courses in four possible areas: Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament of the Bible; Greek Scriptures of the New Testament of the Bible; a course combining the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament and the Greek Scriptures of the New Testament; and religious history.
Hartselle City Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said a few students have inquired about the class, but none have requested to enroll.
“Our plan is to offer it as an elective dual enrollment history class through Calhoun Community College,” she said.
Decatur City Superintendent Michael Douglas said no student has requested the class and that he has not received any guidance from the state as to how to comply with the law.
“If we get a request, we’re going to do what the law says,” he said.
In a July 31 memo, state Superintendent Eric Mackey warned local superintendents to “be mindful” because the new laws require them to comply with laws “regarding maintaining religious neutrality.”
Even when offered as an elective, he said, introducing a Bible-based course can be complicated. Mackey gave superintendents a list of recommendations to consider, including one that said: “Be certain everyone is informed that the course is for academic enrichment, not spiritual or religious instruction.”
The state superintendent also recommended that local school districts be selective about who teaches the course to avoid any biases because the law said a teacher may not “endorse, favor, promote, disfavor, or show hostility toward any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective.”
Jayne — in his letter to the school system — questioned Piedmont’s qualifications to provide a class that complies with state law, saying professors with the college are “experts in training Christian ministers, not teaching secular history.”
Petitt responded by saying, “We have accredited professors on our staff and some of them have worked in high schools.”
He said Piedmont’s relationship with Morgan County has been ongoing for months and that the college has been looking at putting a campus in Decatur since merging with Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham.
He said Piedmont developed an “informal relationship” with Morgan County Schools after bills requiring public schools to allow students access to Bible classes became law.
“This is relatively new and we’re not working with any other school system in the state at this time,” Petitt said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation letter also said Piedmont is "flagrantly anti-gay and anti-transgender" and Morgan County Schools' proposed partnership with the college "alienates non-Christian students and LGBTQ students."
Jayne said Freedom from Religion has no immediate plans to take legal action against Morgan County Schools, but it “watching closely” and waiting on specifics about the curriculum that will be offered to students.
Alabama’s law is patterned after a Kentucky law that is currently getting pushback from the American Civil Liberties Union over what the ACLU called “Bible Literacy classes.”
In a letter to the Kentucky Department of Education, the ACLU said any course addressing the Bible “in public schools must be secular, objective, nondevotional, and must not promote any specific religious view.”
Citing court rulings, the ACLU in the Kentucky letter said it’s “inappropriate and unconstitutional to use public-school educational courses to teach the Bible as truth or from a religious perspective, or to use such courses to disparage other faiths.”