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Bill requiring North Dakota schools to offer Bible course draws heavy fire

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FARGO — A bill that would mandate all North Dakota schools to offer an elective unit on the Bible in their social studies curriculum is emerging as a hot-button issue in the state Legislature.

Offered by a pair of northwest North Dakota senators and two representatives from the east, it's already drawn the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union's state chapter and raised a red flag for at least one Fargo School Board member.

Robin Nelson, a longtime board member and leader of its governmental affairs committee, said the board in the past has opposed any mandated curriculum requirement from the state. Part of the reason for that, she said, is that it can require hiring an additional teacher and other added expenses.

Nelson said religious studies have been acceptable to the board in the past, but not just one specific religion, which the Bible course would do. "Where does it stop?" she asked.

State ACLU Executive Director Heather Smith was more emphatic in her opposition to Senate Bill 2136, calling it "blatantly unconstitutional."

"The Supreme Court has recognized that the government must exercise particular care in separating church and state in public schools," she said in a statement Wednesday, Jan. 9.

"Every student, regardless of their faith, should feel safe and welcome in our public schools. When school officials promote religion generally, or signal their preference for one faith, it sends an exclusionary and destructive message that students who follow other religions, or no religion at all, don’t belong," she said.

She said if the bill passed, it would "very likely expose a school district to litigation."

Rep. Aaron McWilliams of Hillsboro, who calls himself a conservative Republican, had no idea the attention his co-sponsoring of the bill would attract after prime sponsor Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, asked him to sign onto it.

"I just got done with an interview with FoxNews.com," he said Wednesday of the national news network when he was called by The Forum.

McWilliams said he supports the opportunity for schools to offer the course because of the historical value of the Bible and how it has shaped society and America.

He said, however, he doesn't favor a mandate that all schools offer the course as an elective and will be offering an amendment.

The bill would allow schools to teach a unit covering the Old Testament, the New Testament or a mix of the two. It was written into a broader curriculum bill that requires three units of social studies in high schools, of which "any half-unit may be replaced by Bible studies."

The other options are economics, U.S. government, civics, civilization, geography, multicultural studies, North Dakota history, psychology, sociology and world history.

"I'm sympathetic to the challenges of finding a teacher to teach the course, but if someone wants to teach it ... the school shouldn't be stopped from doing it," McWilliams said.

As for the separation of church and state, McWilliams said he believes in the principal but also that a "primary document" like the Bible shouldn't be eliminated from education, in terms of the book's influence on history.

McWilliams also said he's a strong believer in local control and that if a school wants to offer an elective course, the state shouldn't stop them from doing so.

"I think it's important that we get over the stigma of using the Bible in school for a historical and sociological perspective," said the Hillsboro entrepreneur.

"I think if you want to learn about the Bible and how it shaped our society and how it helped to create the United States, the great country we have today, it's good to know what the Bible says and the history of the Bible," McWilliams said.

He said some of the questions that could be answered in such a class include: How did we get the Bible we have today? Why is the Catholic Bible different from the Protestant Bible?

Calls to the other sponsors of the bill, including Larsen, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, and Sen. Jordan Kannianen, R-Stanley, weren't returned Wednesday.