FRANKFORT — When Kentucky high school students read the line “’twere well it were done quickly” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, some state lawmakers want to make sure they don’t miss the reference.
Lawmakers are advancing a bill in the state Senate that would require the Kentucky Board of Education to set guidelines for an elective social studies course on the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Each school would decide whether to offer the course.
Supporters say the course is essential for students understanding the formation of Western culture and history. The line from Macbeth is sometimes seen as an allusion to Jesus’ words in the book of John, when he tells Judas “that thou doest, do quickly.”
The bill is one of many proposals that have new life this year now that Republicans control the House of Representatives. While the bill is sponsored by a Democrat — state Sen. Robin Webb — it has easily passed the Republican-controlled state Senate in previous years but has never gotten through the House while it was under Democratic control.
Republicans have already used their supermajorities in both chambers to push through long-stalled conservative legislation, including banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and outlawing mandatory union dues.
Supporters say knowledge of the Bible is necessary to understand historical events like the Protestant reformation, the founding of the United States and the civil rights movement. They note the bill would not require the class use a specific Bible translation.
The legislation says the courses must not “endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor or show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith.” The state Department of Education would have to come up with the course standards, including teacher qualifications and the required professional development.
“It’s important to understand this bill doesn’t teach the Bible, rather it’s an elective social studies course that teaches about the Bible,” said Jack Westwood, a former state senator who is now a policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky.
But other Christian groups say the bill could actually hinder religious freedom.
“As Christians we respect other religious traditions,” said Kent Gilbert, president of the Kentucky Council of Churches. “This bill appears to privilege two religious traditions and makes no provision for the other religious traditions of the Commonwealth that have also influenced world culture, literature and areas of the social sciences.”
The Senate Education Committee also advanced a bill that would require high school students pass a civics test before receiving their diplomas. The test would be modeled on the same exam given to immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens.
“(Students) can tell you who a pop culture figure is, they can tell you all these type things, but they can’t tell you basic principles of why we are where we’re at and the foundation of the United States,” Republican state Sen. Jared Carpenter said.
Both bills cleared the committee with no objections and now head to the full Senate for a vote.