Currently in the West Virginia Legislature, two bills are making their way through that could potentially require West Virginia public schools to offer an elective course of instruction of the Bible. On Monday, several members of the public gathered in the House of Delegates to speak on the bill, right before its lawmakers put it up for a second reading. 

There are two versions of the bill — House Bill 4780 and Senate Bill 38. Both bills would allow county boards of education to offer the course in ninth grade or above and would educate students on the contents of the text in an objective manner that doesn't promote a religion, but rather educate students on the history, philosophy, law and culture of the religion. 

The House of Delegates version still focuses solely on the Bible, but the Senate's version was recently amended to be a course based on any sacred text or comparative religion — not just the Bible or Christianity.

However, during Monday's public hearing, public members were commenting on the House of Delegates version, and many who spoke felt it was discriminatory toward other religions. 

Malcom Cohen, a student at Piedmont Elementary School in Charleston, stood before delegates and told them he felt the bill was a bad idea, because he and his brother, individuals of the Jewish faith, had a bad after-school experience involving the public school and teachings of the Bible. 

"During the after-school program we were made to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible," Malcom stated. "I'm here to tell you that me and my brother are the only Jewish people at the school, and we had to do that; we felt very confused and we felt like we had done something wrong."

Malcom told lawmakers when he and his brother were picked up by their parents, teachers noted they made a mistake and would send Malcom and his brother out of the room next time a situation like that took place. 

"That solution seemed so stupid to me," Malcom said. "Just because we believe differently we have to leave the room? I think kids who don't believe in Jesus will have a tough time with this bill. I think it's a bad idea." 

Victor Urecki, a rabbi at Charleston's B'nai Jacob Synagogue, spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week against their version of the bill, and also spoke before the House of Delegates Monday opposing the bill. 

"I am in opposition of this bill. Why would I oppose a piece of legislation that elevates my holy book?" Urecki asked. "Well, people of all faith cherish their holy text and can't stand by when our sacred texts are used to marginalize the students of other faiths or when we try to say one sacred text is more important than the other." 

Joseph Cohen, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union - West Virginia (ACLU), told delegates although the bill may be constitutional, it's extremely unlikely teachers teaching the course would be qualified in the subject matter. He said legal action would be possible if this bill passes.

Cohen added a course such as the one up for passage could lead to isolation and confusion for many students. He said people could expect to see a divide in many schools because those with a minority religion wouldn't be taking the class. 

"Those students may already feel isolated and divided, and now they would be isolated and ostracized because of their religion," Cohen said.  

Melody Potter, chair of the West Virginia Republican Party, spoke in favor of the bill. 

"The Bible is the first book to ever be printed," Potter said. "Nothing in this bill would make this course unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that mandating Bible reading or prayer was unconstitutional, but that's not this bill. This is a choice for those who want to take this class. This isn't unconstitutional." 

Del. T. Kevan Bartlett, R-Kanawha, lead sponsor of the House of Delegates version of the bill, gave his own pubic testimony and said the bill would not be based on teaching theology of Christianity or the interpretation of it but teaching the historical significance of the Bible. 

"I agree we shouldn't teach religion in school," Bartlett said. "But we should offer student choices, and that's what this does." 

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During the second reading of the bill in the House of Delegates Monday, Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, offered an amendment making the bill specifically mirror the Senate's version. The amendment would have allowed the elective course to be based on any sacred text or comparative religion; however, his amendment was rejected with 53 delegates rejecting it and 45 voting in favor of it. 

"From listening to the public hearing this morning, I think this helps out both sides," Pushkin said. "Not everyone believes and prays in the exact same way, and we should remember that as West Virginians." 

Del. Bartlett said Pushkin's amendment was a complete departure of the intent of the bill.

"The Bible is the most influential and significant book in history. The amendment replaces the word Bible, so we would have a Bible in school bill that doesn't even reference the Bible," Bartlett said. "Those two options from the amendment — comparative religion and sacred text  — well, those are already a part of the curriculum in social studies in the school system. This is an attempt to keep the Bible out and is seen as inappropriate."

The amendment ultimately failed, and the bill will now be up for a third and final reading during Tuesday's House floor session.  

— Email: jnelson@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @jhatfieldRH

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