CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the House Education Committee heard debate go back and forth during a public hearing on a House bill that would allow elective courses on the Bible in public schools.
HB 4780, permitting a county board of education to offer those elective courses is on second reading on Monday.
The public hearing was nearly split between speakers for and against the bill. None were younger than Malco Cohen, a third-grader at Piedmont Elementary School in Charleston.
Cohen, who told the House Chamber he was Jewish, said the bill is just wrong. He spoke on his personal experiences and got emotional.
“My little brother and I are the only Jewish kids at our school,” Cohen said. “One-day last year at my after-school program, the teachers taught us about Jesus and made us pledge allegiance to the Bible. It made me feel very worried and confused. I felt like I was doing something wrong.”
Cohen went on to say he believes that the bill would force children to have a tough time like he had.
“They said me and my little brother shouldn’t have been there while they were teaching about the Bible and Jesus. They said from now on they would send me and my little brother to a room by ourselves when they talked about the Bible and Jesus.
“That solution seemed so, so stupid to me. How would you feel if you sent to a room all by yourself just because you were Jewish?”
Multiple speakers that supported the piece of legislation quoted the Founding Fathers and the history of the Bible in the United States. West Virginia resident Kevin Foster was one of those people.
“James Madison said the bible is the best book in the world, he was a signer of the Declaration,” Foster said.
“Patrick Henry said the Bible is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed. John Jay, the president of the Congress, said by conveying the Bible to people, we certainly do the most interesting act of kindness.”
West Virginia resident Bo Burgess said it makes sense that the Bible is taught in schools.
“The Bible is the best selling book of all-time, having been sold over 5 billion copies,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you want the youth of America to be exposed to the best selling book of all-time?”
“The father of public education, Benjamin Rush who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said the Bible should read in our schools and preference to all other books.”
The text in the current legislation, currently a committee substitute, states that the purpose of the course is to teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding the development of American society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.
It further stated that the course is meant to familiarize students with the contents, history and literary style of the Hebrew Scriptures or New testament. If passed and signed into law, the courses would only be taught in grades nine and above.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, a vestry member of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Charleston, spoke on behalf of college professor and vestry member Maggie McCabe against the bill, citing flawed educational reasons.
“Educational time is very important to assist in forming the minds of young people. Religion is a personal faith commitment that does not need to be mandated to individuals by the government,” Pomponio said of McCabe’s statement.
Sam Hickman, Executive Director of WV Chapter of National Association of Social Workers said the bill is the opposite of diversity in schools. He believes it would be a step backward.
“HB 4780 does nothing but help a dominant belief system impose those beliefs on others. The study of comparative religions is already allowed in our schools,” he said.
A third reading and passage vote on the two-page bill is expected on Tuesday. Crossover Day in the state legislature is on Wednesday.