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Oklahoma state superintendent says schools must assimilate the Bible into curriculum

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Oklahoma, a new mandate requires all schools to teach from the Bible.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

State superintendent Ryan Walters says the requirement will ensure students grasp the, quote, "core values of our country," but the announcement brought an immediate backlash.

MARTIN: Beth Wallis is an education reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma, which is a nonprofit reporting collaboration among NPR stations, and she's with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Beth.

BETH WALLIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what exactly does this new requirement say?

WALLIS: So Walters originally announced that every classroom would have a Bible and every teacher would teach from the Bible, but those details began to evolve throughout the day. In a memo to schools, and when pressed by reporters, he clarified that it would only be for fifth- through 12th-graders, and only for social studies and English. I should also say, Walters is a Conservative who has made a name for himself nationally by vowing to get wokeness out of the classroom, so this is very on-brand for him.

MARTIN: But the obvious question here is, can he do that? I mean, separation of church and state, you know, the prohibition against the, sort of, promotion of one state religion - those are core American values, not to mention constitutional requirements, so can he do that?

WALLIS: Well, so in Oklahoma, our social studies standards say you should teach religion as part of history, and it outlines several ways religious history should be incorporated - for example, the role of Christianity in colonial America, or the significance of religion in world geography and borders. And Walters did clarify that he wants teachings on the Bible's impacts to be, quote, "strictly from a historical perspective," which - that's pretty close to what the academic standards say anyway, but he's also not leaving out of his argument these very common refrains we've heard a lot from him about what he considers to be leftist influence in schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN WALTERS: What we have done is taken God out of schools, taken the Bible out of schools, and it doesn't make sense to teach American history without understanding what the founders were saying as they were doing these momentous things.

WALLIS: You know, I also think it's important to note that Oklahoma law is very clear on decisions about textbooks and curriculum and instructional materials. Those decisions fall exclusively under the purview of school districts, and not the state department that Walters is in charge of.

MARTIN: Given all that, what's been the reaction?

WALLIS: So I talked to the state attorney general's office, and they said they've looked at the letter to schools. They actually don't read it as requiring the Bible to be taught. I also spoke with a Democratic state representative, Jacob Rosecrants. He used to be a middle and high school history teacher, and he said he's been reached out to by hundreds of teachers who are concerned and confused.

JACOB ROSECRANTS: And they're like, OK, this is really, really bad - like, why would somebody even do this? We already had the freedom to do this. Why would somebody mandate this happen?

WALLIS: You know, we're also seeing civil liberties groups come out against this. The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State - they already have a few lawsuits against Walters. They said in a statement that they would do everything in their power to stop the mandate.

MARTIN: That is Beth Wallis with StateImpact Oklahoma. Beth, thank you so much.

WALLIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HZ & STRONG MAURICE'S "BEYOND THE OAK TREES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Beth Wallis
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.