Calling it an important part of Western culture, members of a House committee voted Monday to let schools teach the Old and New Testaments to students in public high schools.
The 6-2 vote on HB 2563 supports the arguments by Rep. Terri Proud, R-Tucson, that the Bible is such an integral part of literature and history. She told members of the House Education Committee that keeping the Bible out of the classroom over fears of proselytizing denies students the background they need to understand everything from Shakespeare to the Bill of Rights.
But even some supporters of the legislation said they fear unintended consequences of opening the door to this kind of class, even as an optional elective.
"Those in the smaller religions would say that, from their perspective, you know what, their religion has as much depth and meaning in American history as the Bible does,'' said Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction.
"What about the Koran, is it acceptable?'' he asked. "What about the Book of Mormon?''
But in the end, Fillmore and other Republicans on the panel decided to support the measure.
"I believe we have lost a part of our soul by taking religion out of our classrooms,'' he said.
Others, like Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, argued that, properly taught, the Bible -- at least as literature -- can make a difference in how people understand the language.
For example, Pierce related how, in a conversation about choosing a mediator in a lawsuit, one attorney said that person "tends to split the baby.''
"I knew what that meant,'' Pierce said, with the reference coming from a Bible story about how King Solomon, dealing with two women who each claimed a child as her own, suggested splitting the child and giving each woman half. Only when one woman agreed to give up her claim could Solomon determine she was the real mother.
"I wonder, without an understanding of the story of wise King Solomon, if I might have thought that senior partner was a bit crazy and possibly a bit murderous,'' Pierce said. Similarly, he said the language -- and even Arizona law -- has biblical references, such as the state's Good Samaritan law that provides legal protections for those who stop at accidents to help.
But Rep. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, feared crossing the line into promotion of religion.
"I do believe this is the responsibility of the parents ... to take their kids to church, to make sure they do the Sunday school and the vacation Bible school and the church camp,'' she said. That, said Pancrazi, will bring back "the family values that we were all raised on.''
Anjali Abraham, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told lawmakers that schools already can discuss the Bible "as long as it's done in an objective and neutral way.'' But she warned lawmakers that efforts to determine what in the Bible is "history'' is fraught with problems.
"There are churches and denominations that take a very literal view of the Bible,'' she said. "There are other churches that take a more metaphorical approach,'' Abraham continued, seeing the stories more as parables.
"Schools are going to have to decide what counts as recorded history,'' she explained.
"That invariably means embracing one particular viewpoint or a couple of religious viewpoints and rejecting others,'' Abraham continued. "And that presents a First Amendment problem.''
Proud, however, did not share those concerns, saying there is a clear difference between religion and the texts of the Old and New Testaments.
"We're talking about a book that has ... much history,'' she said. "It is a book that is read and kept and taught by many people of various faiths, religious or non religious.''
One potential lawsuit waiting to happen if the bill becomes law has to do with discrimination.
Current law spells out that school boards must "exclude from school libraries all books, publications and papers of a sectarian, partisan or denominational character.'' Proud's bill creates an exception -- but only for the Old and New Testaments.
Serah Blain, executive director of the Secular Coalition of Arizona, said that means only the texts of certain religions would be suppressed, which she said cannot legally be done.
Proud said her legislation contains safeguards against these classes becoming places to preach. She said schools that want to offer such classes would first have to have the curriculum and reading materials reviewed by district attorneys to ensure they comply with the law. And Proud said teachers who go beyond what is permitted can lose their teaching certificates.
But the legislation also provides blanket immunity from both civil lawsuits and disciplinary action to any teacher who provides instruction "in its appropriate historical context and in good faith.'' That latter provision led to questions of whether any teacher's license could really be at risk.