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How Hobby Lobby's president is standing up for religion — and putting it into schools

By David Van Biema, Religion News Service

Published: Thursday, April 17 2014 4:30 p.m. MDT

Students' Bibles rest prominently along side purses and clothing change bags in Jackson, Miss. The Mustang, Okla., school board voted Monday to adopt a Bible course developed by Steve Green, clearing the way for the Hobby Lobby president, whose suit against the Affordable Care Act is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, to enter another charged arena at the borderline of church and state.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

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Religion News Service — The Mustang, Okla., school board voted Monday to adopt a Bible course developed by Steve Green, clearing the way for the Hobby Lobby president, whose suit against the Affordable Care Act is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, to enter another charged arena at the borderline of church and state.

The board, whose district is practically in Hobby Lobby's Oklahoma City backyard, agreed to beta-test the first year of the Museum of the Bible Curriculum, an ambitious four-year public school elective on the narrative, history and impact of the Good Book.

For at least the first semester of the 2014-15 year, Mustang alone will employ the program, said Jerry Pattengale, head of the Green Scholars Initiative, which is overseeing its development. In September 2016, he hopes to place it in at least 100 high schools; by the following year, "thousands."

If successful, Green, whose family's wealth is estimated at upward of $3 billion, would galvanize the movement to teach the Bible academically in public schools, a movement born after the Supreme Court banned school-sanctioned devotion in the 1960s but whose steady progress in the last decades has been somewhat hampered.

The Green curriculum "is like nothing we’ve seen before," said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and editor of a booklet sent out to all schools by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000 on teaching religion in public schools. "It's unique in its ambition and its scope and its use of the latest technologies. I think school districts far from Oklahoma will take note."

So will civil libertarians. In an award-acceptance speech last April before the National Bible Association, Green explained that his goals for a high school curriculum were to show that the Bible is true, that it's good and that its impact, "whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … when we apply it to our lives in all aspects of our life, that it has been good."

If realized, these sentiments, although shared by millions of Americans, could conflict with the court's requirement that public school treatment of the Bible be taught in a secular, academic fashion.

In the same speech, Green expressed hope that such courses would become mandatory, whereas now they are usually elective.

Green's move into public school curricula grew out of his second-best-known project (after the lawsuit): a 430,000-square-foot museum of the Bible due to open in 2017 several blocks from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that will feature objects from his family's 44,000-piece collection of biblical artifacts.

A little over a year ago, said Pattengale, the realization that a high school curriculum could "help millions of students worldwide" understand the Bible's importance came to seem even more pressing than the museum. Having created an international network of scholars to assist the museum, Pattengale led a crash initiative on the curriculum. He describes the first year, which takes the project only to its quarter-way mark, as a multimillion-dollar effort involving more than 170 people. "It will never recuperate its expenses," he said, but "there’s no desire to make money."

He describes the program as "robustly unique." It divides its topic into three areas: the Bible’s narrative; the history of its composition and reception; and its impact on human civilization. The spine of the first-year program (the only text completed so far) is a 400-plus-page spiral-bound book featuring 108 chapters divided into five-day-a-week lessons.

The book links to a dizzying array of state-of-the-art digital enhancements (Pattengale counts 550), including one where illustrations "come alive" as video on the screen of a smartphone; original lectures by Green Institute scholars; clips from the Mark Burnett/Roma Downey miniseries "The Bible"; and deep digital access to the Green’s biblical collection.

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