PHOENIX — An Arizona lawmaker is pushing to create a high school course about the Bible and its role in Western culture with a bill that threatens to drop the state into a constitutional dilemma over the separation of church and state.
At least five other states — all in the Bible Belt — have passed similar legislation and the bill's sponsor says students would benefit from the course because biblical references are everywhere.
Critics say the proposal is unnecessary and divisive and could be unconstitutional because it "sets aside Christianity as a preferred religion."
Republican Rep. Terri Proud of Tucson sponsored the measure, which asks the state Board of Education to design a course called "The Bible and its Influence on Western Culture." The course would be an elective at high schools that choose to offer it.
Public schools across the country have generally avoided Bible courses, but hundreds offer such classes as electives.
The bill stipulates that the course maintain "religious neutrality," and requires the state Attorney General to review the curriculum to ensure it doesn't conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
Proud, who is on the House Education Committee, said she wants students to learn about the Bible's influence on art and literature, noting that there are biblical references in everything from Michelangelo's paintings and Shakespeare's plays to modern movies and television.
"This is such an essential foundation for our kids' knowledge," she said. "We are so engulfed in it."
If students aren't taught those references, Proud said, they face a learning gap from high school to college.
Proud said teachers in her district told her they have a fear of mentioning Christianity or the Bible in the classroom, and she hopes the law will give them some guidance.
"There's nothing wrong with bringing religion into a classroom," she said. "The issue is we can't bring devotion."
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned ceremonial Bible readings in schools but said "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" so long as material is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."
Georgia in 2006 passed a law supporting voluntary Bible courses that is similar to the Arizona proposal. Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Oklahoma have also passed similar laws.
Hundreds of public schools in other states offer elective Bible classes to students even though their state has not passed a law addressing the issue.
Arizona doesn't need to adopt such a law because there's nothing stopping districts from offering it now, said state Sen. Rich Crandall, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
However, Crandall said he doesn't have a problem with the bill, and said Proud is looking to reassure school districts.
"She didn't have any ulterior motives," he said.
As long as the course is objective, it's constitutional, said David Cortman, a lawyer with Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group that supports the Bible classes.
"I believe it's an extremely important type of course to provide just because our culture is so saturated with biblical reference and biblical allusions," Cortman said.
Critics say the course could face legal challenges by bringing religious instruction into public schools.
"It tends to set aside Christianity as a preferred religion. We think that's unconstitutional," said Doug Kilgore with the Arizona Education Association. "We don't believe in passing legislation that's going to be struck down."
Victoria Lopez, a program director with the Arizona office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said a Bible-focused class is "troubling."
Lopez said it's difficult for a school to teach such a course without imposing a particular religious view.
"It's very easy for teachers to cross the line and violate students' religious rights," she said. "There's a lot of room here for those violations to take place."
Though the course would be an elective, Lopez said it's a problem that public resources and agencies would be involved in some form of religious study.
The Arizona School Boards Association, a major advocacy group at the Capitol, is planning to meet with Proud to get more information about the bill, said spokeswoman Tracy Benson. Benson said the association did not want to comment on the proposal at this time.
Others say the bill, which has not yet been heard by a committee, is simply a waste of time.
"There's plenty of issues the state should be tackling right now," said Rep. Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson. "I see this bill only as divisive, and it's going to cause issues in the Legislature."
Tovar, who sits on the House committee on education, said some parents choose a public school specifically because they're free of courses centered on religion. Tovar sends her children to public school for that reason, and then takes them to a church class to learn about religion.
"It's all about parental priority," she said.
Sue Skidmore, president of the Paradise Valley Unified School District Governing Board, said students aren't missing key references in literature or history because they might touch on religion.
"Teachers have always had the freedom to point out biblical references in all kinds of literary works," she said.
Skidmore said lawmakers are facing much bigger problems and shouldn't be moving into the school districts' domain.
"I really believe that the discussion of elective high school courses doesn't belong in the Legislature," she said.
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.