A Test for Bible Courses Education Bills Pose Legal, Political Barriers

By Williams, Dave | The Florida Times Union, February 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Test for Bible Courses Education Bills Pose Legal, Political Barriers


Williams, Dave, The Florida Times Union


ATLANTA -- With much of the controversy surrounding Gov. Roy Barnes'

education reform bill now behind the General Assembly, lawmakers are about to move into another education-related issue fraught with emotion: whether to teach the Bible in public schools.

The House Education Committee is due to take up legislation tomorrow that melds two competing bills authorizing the use of state funds to teach two elective high school courses based on the Bible.

One course, being pushed by religious fundamentalists, would use the Bible as its primary text in curriculum already being used in 29 states.

The other, contained in a bill sponsored by Education Committee Chairwoman Jeannette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, would use other texts to teach about the Bible.

"Now, we're trying to get it to where we would authorize both courses and the local school systems could choose which, or both of the courses, they want to offer," said Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Snellville, point man in the House for School Superintendent Linda Schrenko.

Lawmakers are wrestling with the issue because the state Board of Education never reached a decision late last year on whether to authorize a Bible-based course supported by Schrenko. State Attorney General Thurbert Baker had warned board members in a legal opinion that it would be difficult to make sure individual teachers keep their lessons within constitutional limits guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

If the House can somehow craft a compromise that avoids the legal and political mine fields inherent in matters dealing with religion and government, the fate of the legislation then would be up to the Senate.

Meanwhile, other House committees this week will consider bills that already passed the Senate while the House was grappling with education reform.

Legislation aimed at hate crimes hits the House Judiciary Committee, while the Agriculture Committee deals with a bill upgrading the most serious cases of animal cruelty to a felony.

On the Senate side, lawmakers will go to work on legislation switching the state's method of executing condemned criminals from the electric chair to lethal injection. The House approved the bill last week after soundly defeating a bid to ban capital punishment altogether.

At one point last week, it appeared the issue might become moot when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Alabama's use of electrocution to carry out the death penalty.

But later in the week, the Georgia Supreme Court decided to take up a similar appeal from a convicted Savannah cop killer. Supporters of switching to lethal injection are worried that a court ruling banning the electric chair could leave the state without a means of execution. …

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