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ACLU: Bill requiring North Dakota schools to offer Bible course 'blatantly unconstitutional'

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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.

Proposed 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.

State ACLU Executive Director Heather Smith was 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, R-Hillsboro, 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.

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," he 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.