PHOENIX — Arizona's public and charter high-school students soon could earn credit for learning about the influence of the Old Testament on art or how biblical references are found throughout literature.
A state legislator has proposed legislation that would make Arizona the sixth state in the nation to allow schools to offer a high-school elective course on the Bible. Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas already have laws allowing such classes.
Arizona law doesn't ban the use of the Bible, or any other religious document, as part of a public-school class curriculum as long as it is for academic purposes and does not involve sectarian ideas or religious devotion. But state Rep. Terri Proud, a Republican from Tucson, Ariz., said teachers and school districts still are often afraid to even discuss religion in their classrooms.
"There is this false perception that separation of church means absolutely no religion in school, that the Bible is not allowed," Proud said. "That is absolutely not true."
Her legislation, she said, makes it clear that teachers can teach the Bible "in a very restricted way."
"There are people out there who hate the Bible and everything about it. That's fine, but don't deprive our children of biblical literature because of your personal feelings," she said.
The bill would allow public and charter high schools to offer an elective course on the "critical evaluation and examination of the Bible as a literary work" starting June 30, 2013.
The course must follow state and federal law in maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating diverse religious views. Course credits must count toward graduation.
Marc Victor, a Chandler, Ariz., lawyer who has represented groups including the Freedom from Religion Foundation in separation-of-church-and-state issues, said he has no problem with the legislation.
"To deny that the Bible has had a substantial influence on our culture, our laws and our ethics would be ridiculous," Victor said. "If it's done in an intellectually honest, nonbiased way for educational purposes, it's a great idea."
The Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been closely monitoring these classes in states that have passed similar legislation.
Senior policy analyst Rob Boston said he sees no legal problem with laws allowing schools to offer such classes on the Bible. But he has seen problems with some of those doing the teaching.
Rarely is any teacher training offered for those teaching the course, he said, making it challenging for teachers to walk the line between academics and proselytizing.
Georgia, which has offered the course for several years, has seen dwindling interest and many districts have stopped offering the course, Boston said.
Boston suggested lawmakers need to think carefully about whether they really want what they are asking for.
"Many people consider the Bible to be the literal rule of God and believe accounts to be history," he said. "But the academic views of the Bible usually hold that the Bible is a collection of stories and myths. So are teachers supposed to ignore the overwhelming majority of scholars and give equal billing to a fundamentalist idea?"