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Just after dawn, students walk past Denham Springs High School's old gymnasium, which is emblazoned with the words 'Home of the Yellow Jackets,' as students return to school there and on the Denham Springs Freshman High campus for the first time since the August flood, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.

A Livingston Parish public high school is looking to bring back a course next year called "Bible as Literature" for the first time in over a decade.

Such courses can be both instructive and constitutional in principle, experts say, but are fraught with the danger of crossing the line that's supposed to separate church and state.

Some widely available curriculum for such courses ends up promoting religious belief, these experts say, and teachers who are not properly trained to teach the course can do the same.

And in the last few decades, Bible courses often have been promoted by people with a religious and frequently right-wing agenda, giving rise to questions about what is being taught and why.

"What matters is that while these courses on the face of things are legal, how they are taught makes a tremendous difference," said Mark Chancey, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who studies public school Bible classes.

They can, he said, be "lightning rods for controversy." 

A top school system official said the course is being offered in Denham Springs High School as an elective, at the request of students.

It's possible to offer again next year, because the school is switching to a block-type schedule in order to accommodate students taking courses at a new STEM center. The schedule will in turn create more space in student and teacher schedules for elective classes, said Jody Purvis, supervisor of high school instruction.

The course was taught for several years but was put on hiatus due to scheduling issues about a decade ago, Purvis said. He could not recall any issues arising when it was taught previously. 

Denham Springs High School would be the only school in the parish offering the course, Purvis said. It is not offered in neighboring East Baton Rouge or Ascension Parish schools, spokespeople for those districts said. 

Purvis said he did not have a curriculum for the class, and a teacher hasn't been selected for it. It will be offered only if there is sufficient interest, he said. 

Generally, the "Bible as Literature" class will look at the Old Testament and New Testament as a literary and historical document, he said.

"That focus is simply done without imposing the doctrine of any particular religious sector," Purvis said.

He said the course may draw from a widely available syllabus called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

"Some of that could be used as a go-to source, but I'm not going to say this would be followed totally," Purvis said.

Denham Springs High Principal Kelly Jones declined to offer information on the class. 

"I don't have a whole lot to offer to you on the subject," Jones said, shortly before hanging up the phone on a reporter.

According to Kevin Calbert, communications manager for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, school districts have "autonomy to determine their curriculum, lessons and materials used in their schools to meet state academic standards." 

The board does not accredit individual courses or dictate which courses and instructional materials districts may offer, he said.

Chancey said the class, as described, fits within what the Constitution allows.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in its 1963 benchmark decision about these types of courses that "one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization."

But the court ruled that schools cannot advocate for a given religion or even for religion versus nonreligion in its courses. 

"Federal courts have determined that high schools can offer courses about the Bible, as long as they are taught from an academic and nonsectarian perspective," Chancey said.

The trouble with these type of classes comes in the teaching of them. Often teachers are not well-trained in the literary features of the Bible and the legal boundaries, he said.

For example, teaching that the Bible is an ancient, historic text is constitutional, Chancey said. But teaching that it is an accurate historical document is a religious claim, the teaching of which violates the constitution.

"There's the inherent possibility of controversy whether a school is teaching a course in a way that is perfectly legal versus in a way that is not perfectly legal," he said.

The National Council curriculum that school officials talked about drawing from for the Bible course at Denham Springs High has a track record of controversy and legal challenges, Chancey said.

The group behind it has religious agenda, he said, and a federal court in Florida prohibited a school district from using the curriculum as it pertained to the New Testament and only allowed teaching Old Testament portion after it was substantially revised.

"Bible as Literature" classes in public high schools date back to the early 1900s when they were taught from a primarily Christian perspective. That changed after the Supreme Court's 1963 decision, when educators worked on new ways of teaching the Bible and religion in schools, he said.

The National Council began promoting its curriculum in the 1990s, Chancey said, and a push by conservative activists to put these types of courses in schools grew in the mid-2000s.

Each year, legislators in different states around the country introduce bills encouraging school districts to add these classes. In 2016, the GOP added that to its national platform.

“It is a minority of school districts that teach these courses, but they're certainly happening around the country," Chancey said.


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.