OKLAHOMA CITY — A high-school curriculum supported by Hobby Lobby chain President Steve Green, billed as a way to teach archaeology, history and the arts through Bible stories, also tells students that God is always there in times of trouble and that sinners must “suffer the consequences” of disobeying.
The Mustang School Board in suburban Oklahoma City voted this month to place the Museum of the Bible’s curriculum in the public schools as an elective for a one-year trial after being assured that the intent is not to proselytize but to use the Bible to explain key principles in the arts and sciences.
While the course does explain the inspiration behind famous works of art and holds a prism to historical events, it also endorses behavior for religious reasons and implies that bad things happen as a direct result of disregarding God’s rules.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma and the Freedom From Religion Foundation say using the curriculum raises constitutional issues and want the school district to reconsider.
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The course is promoted by Green, the executive for the crafts-store chain who is also a member of the Bible museum’s board. Green, who has said he wants the program in thousands of schools by 2017, declined to comment.
“This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it’s about a book,” Green told Mustang School Board members in November. “We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.”
A draft copy of the curriculum provided by the ACLU shows that among the topics covered are the role of religion in early America, discussing the New World as a haven for those seeking to escape religious persecution, and the role of religion in art, citing the role of patrons such as the Roman Catholic Church and wealthy families during the Renaissance.
The book also uses popular culture, mentioning songs written by U2 that it says are based in the Psalms, to illustrate the Bible’s modern relevance. It does not name specific compositions.
From the outset, the book describes God as eternal, “faithful and good,” “full of love” and “an ever-present help in times of trouble.”
“The first pages of the Bible spotlight God’s desire for justice and a just world,” the second chapter says, but adds: “When humanity ignores or disobeys his rules, it has to suffer the consequences.”
The course also says people should rest on the Sabbath because God did so after six days of creation. Green’s stores, following the same principle, are closed on Sunday.
Hobby Lobby and a sister company, the Mardel bookstore chain, also sued the federal government after the passage of the Affordable Care Act claiming that providing certain types of birth control to workers would violate the religious-freedom rights of the company’s owners. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the case last month.
Andrew Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to the Mustang district this week complaining that “negative aspects” of God are not mentioned in the course.
The book phrases contradictory questions and answers — such as references to the Israelites being slaves — in ways designed to favor Christianity, Seidel said. He said it also poses Christian thought as rhetorical questions, such as asking, “How do we know that the Bible’s historical narratives are reliable?” rather than, “Is the Bible historically accurate?”
“They assume the answer in the question and stifle all scholarly discussion,” Seidel said.
Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University who reviewed the curriculum at the AP’s request, said it lacked scholarly insight.
“It’s more of a very basic background book,” he said, adding that he found the curriculum “full of land mines” and used scripture from only one tradition, evangelical Protestantism.
The superintendent of Mustang schools, Sean McDaniel, said that if the board believed the curriculum crossed a line it wouldn’t have approved the course.
“We’re not asking kids to believe the stories,” McDaniel said. “This is a purely academic endeavor. If it turns into something beyond that, either we will correct it or we will get rid of it.”
Brady Henderson, the legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma and a Sunday-school teacher, said the Green family’s goal is transparent and inappropriate.
“They’ve been outspoken on this and one of their concerns with modern American life is that many biblical teachings aren’t taught enough,” Henderson said. “The deeper we get into it, the more red flags we see.”