ATLANTA – In 2006, Georgia became the first state to allow Bible education classes in public schools, after much debate over the sticky issue of separation of church and state. Now the classes are dwindling for a far more tangible reason: money.
Superintendents say interest has waned in the once-controversial classes and schools don't have the money to pay for courses with only a few students enrolled. What's more, budget cuts mean it now takes more students to fill up a class than ever before — some classes need more than 25 enrolled before they are considered affordable.
"We're not going to utilize a teacher for a whole period with 10 to 15 students. In the past, we may have considered that, but with the economy being the way it is, we just can't afford to do that," said Columbia County schools Superintendent Charles Nagle, who has cut the Bible classes from three to one in his tiny district.
Since Georgia's law passed five years ago, four states — Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Oklahoma — have adopted similar measures, but none track the classes like Georgia does. Officials in those states say they simply approve the curriculum and leave it up to local districts to decide whether to offer the classes.
Though data are scant in other states, national experts say Georgia is not alone.
The economy is taking a toll on how many schools consider offering Bible classes because it's difficult to find qualified teachers and set aside the funding for the textbook and materials, said Sarah Jenislawski, executive director for the Virginia-based Bible Literacy Project, which has sold its textbook to more than 500 schools in 43 states.
Before the laws passed, most schools would have been concerned about whether the classes are legal, but now the main objection is money, Jenislawski said.
"Sometimes, instead of taking one year, it might take two or three" years to establish the classes, she said. "They're having trouble keeping the lights on and keeping the air conditioner running."
Other states like Alabama have stopped short of adopting laws but still provide the curriculum in schools. Hundreds of public schools across the country offer voluntary Bible courses to students even though their state doesn't have a law specifically addressing the issue.
The laws help provide cover for districts worried about being sued and encourage schools that might not otherwise consider the classes to begin offering Bible elective courses.
In Georgia, just 21 middle and high schools in 16 districts — a fraction of the 180 school districts in the state — offered the voluntary classes last school year, the latest data available. That's compared to 48 districts offering the classes four years ago.
Some of that drop-off is due to students having little time in their class schedules for elective courses because they have to repeat the state's new, tougher math courses or need an Advanced Placement class to help with college admissions, educators said.
"When we first started offering it was new and kids had interest in taking the class," said superintendent Bill McCowan, whose Gordon County, Ga., district has two high schools. "We've expanded our elective offerings in social studies and history to include more Advanced Placement coursework. There's only so much student head count to go around."
Critics worried that the law would lead to students being force-fed religion and open schools to lawsuits. Under the law, the classes must be taught "in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."
But those lawsuits have not materialized, mostly because Georgia and other states have found ways to ensure their Bible courses follow legal guidelines, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center who researches religious liberty.
"A lot of the courses that are being offered right now are gray-area cases," said Haynes. "It really takes a lot of investigation to make sure it's a clear violation."
Some parents say they wish their districts had the Bible classes because children need to know how influential the text has been on literature and pop culture.
"We need to bring that back into the schools because kids now, the new generation, just has so many issues," said Wendy Labat, whose son is an eighth-grader in Clayton County, which has never offered the Bible electives. "Whether you believe in God or not, it's still the word of God and kids need to have that experience."
Dorie Turner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner