Education , Culture & the Family

Bill allowing Bible classes during school sent to governor

Ray Carter | May 29, 2024

Legislation that provides a framework for schools to allow students to take religious or moral instruction from an outside provider during the school day—something already allowed under existing law and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling—has cleared its final legislative hurdle and is on its way to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk.

Under House Bill 1425, by state Rep. Clay Staires and state Sen. Dave Rader, Oklahoma schools would be required to adopt a policy that excuses a student to attend a “released time course” for no more than three class periods per week or a maximum of 125 class periods per school year.

“House Bill 1425 does not invent the idea of release time for religious instruction,” said Staires, R-Skiatook. “Nope. That idea has been around for a long time and it was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court all the way back in 1952. Likewise, this bill does not make release time for religious instruction legal in Oklahoma. It’s already legal. Oklahoma’s Parents’ Bill of Rights back in 2014 gave parents the explicit right to have their children excused from school for religious programs and purposes. This bill does not invent something new. It does not legalize something that is illegal. And it does not create a new right for parents. What it does is very simple … It provides guidelines.”

The legislation defines “released time course” as “a period of time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious or moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.”

“It’s year-round VBS, and to that end maybe we should just give them some cookies and maybe some grape Kool-Aid to go with that.” —State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City

Students could participate only if a parent or legal guardian provides written consent, and students would be responsible for any missed schoolwork.

State Rep. Jon Echols, an Oklahoma City Republican who carried the bill on the House floor, said that if school officials do not allow students to take off-site courses on moral instruction, they are already in violation of current state law, and Echols said that will not end well for those schools.

“Schools will get sued. Schools will lose,” Echols said.

He said HB 1425 provides a framework to help school boards approve a legally defensible policy regarding such courses.

“This is happening in school districts right now,” Echols said. “This is not the change—the fact that people can be excused and counted present.”

The bill was opposed by most Democrats and a splinter group of Republican lawmakers who sided with legislative liberals.

State Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City, derided the bill as “year-round” Vacation Bible School.

“This is religious instruction,” Fugate said. “It’s year-round VBS, and to that end maybe we should just give them some cookies and maybe some grape Kool-Aid to go with that.”

State Rep. Jared Deck, D-Norman, said the bill “requires boards of education to use their public resources in order to assist in the administration of a program that is designed explicitly for an undefined religious and moral instruction.”

State Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, objected that state law does not “allow credits to be given for any other outside organization.”

State Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, said that allowing students to be excused from school for religious or moral instruction would create “another problem, another obstacle to work around” for school counselors trying to make certain students graduate.

But Staires noted 26 other states have similar laws.

“By passing House Bill 1425, we can ensure every public school district in Oklahoma has a policy that respects the First Amendment, helps schools avoid violating existing mandates, and respects the authority of local communities,” Staires said. “This bill is not a heavy lift. It’s not a hard decision.”

Echols also said a vote on the bill should be an easy choice.

“As I listen to this debate, it comes down to one thing: Whose kid is that?” Echols said. “Does the kid belong to the state of Oklahoma on loan to their parents? Or does the kid belong to the parents? That’s the question.”

He noted no child is required to participate in religious or moral programming under the bill, and the bill does not endorse any specific religion.

The current version of HB 1425 previously passed the Oklahoma Senate on a bipartisan 38-7 vote.

But it faced stronger opposition in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, where it won final passage on a 51-40 vote, receiving the bare number of votes required to pass.

The bill now proceeds to the governor.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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