A middle school teacher with an undergraduate religion degree from a Baptist university and a master of divinity degree from a Methodist seminary now finds herself at the center of a controversy over alleged hate speech against Jews.
Moreover, Chattanooga’s Hamilton County Schools has been accused by Americans United for Separation of Church and State of illegally using public school curriculum to indoctrinate students in a conservative evangelical Christian faith.
Anna McClung teaches “Bible History” at East Hamilton Middle School. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in Religion with a concentration in religious leadership and organization from Samford University in 2016. Samford is a Baptist-affiliated school in Birmingham, Ala. She later earned a master of divinity degree from Candler School of Theology of Emory University, a United Methodist school, in 2019. She is one of multiple “Bible teachers” employed by the district.
The accusations against McClung and the district are twofold: First, that McClung has repeatedly mistreated non-Christian students in the class and, second, that the class itself is a violation of the Constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state.
Jewish family’s complaint
Juniper Russo, a Jewish woman whose 13-year-old daughter was a student in the class, reported that McClung instructed students they could “torture a Jew” by making them say the Hebrew name for God, which is not traditionally said aloud by Jewish people.
That prompted a formal complaint to the district from Americans United, which resulted in what the school district called a “rigorous investigation.” The district reported that it believes the teacher “made a reference to the fact that Jewish people do not say the Hebrew name of God as represented and, in essence, that to hear or say that word would be a torturous or difficult experience for them. Some students recalled the discussion while others did not. None of the students interviewed believed that the teacher was instructing them on how to torture a Jewish person or that her comments were rooted in malice.”
The district added: “We cannot conclude that the teacher intended to actually instruct her students about how to ‘torture’ a Jewish person, and none of the students interviewed who recalled the comment interpreted it negatively. While it does not appear that the statement was intended to cause offense, it did. No student should feel singled out or marginalized in class as a result of a teacher’s instruction.”
“While it does not appear that the statement was intended to cause offense, it did.”
What action, if any, was taken against the teacher was not indicated.
Entire curriculum challenged
Americans United had demanded an apology to the Jewish student as well as changes in the school’s curriculum. The church-state watchdog group demanded that the district “either end, or immediately review and bring into constitutional compliance, a Bible class whose teacher is proselytizing schoolchildren, disparaging Judaism and other non-Christian belief systems, and using course materials that are appropriate for a Christian Sunday school class, not a secular public-school classroom.”
Americans United and the Jewish parent the group represents offered other examples of inappropriate content and comments in the class:
- Biblical stories and Christian doctrine taught as facts, such as the existence of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark, that the earth was created in seven literal days, and that the Bible was written by prophets who were directly spoken to by God.
- Students are required to daily transcribe Bible verses.
- Students have been required to watch videos produced by The Bible Project. “The videos included a depiction of a forked road, with Christianity depicted as one fork, represented by light, sunshine and color, and all other religions on the other fork, represented by storms, shadows and darkness. It also appeared to show anti-Semitic depictions of Jewish people.”
- The teacher boasted of a non-Christian student who allegedly accepted the Bible as truth after taking a similar Bible study course.
In its response, the school district said a review committee is being formed to “evaluate course content and reference materials.”
A district-wide program
Bible History is a district-wide curriculum option from middle school through high school. A current job opening on the district site for a “Bible teacher” says: “The Bible History elective program in Hamilton County Schools helps middle and high school students gain a broad appreciation of the Bible as a significant work of literature and an influential text in the formation of western civilization. The academic study of the Bible provides students with a broader awareness of ancient cultures and allows them to better understand biblical allusions in various works of literature, art and music. Additionally, utilizing the Bible as the textbook, students engage with the many historical events recorded in the Bible, as well as the diverse social customs of the ancient world.”
“Students gain an increased understanding of the Bible’s influence on culture, customs and world history, while also learning to critically engage with this rich literary work without bias for or against any religious group or denomination.”
It continues: “Through studying Bible History, students gain an increased understanding of the Bible’s influence on culture, customs and world history, while also learning to critically engage with this rich literary work without bias for or against any religious group or denomination. It is envisioned that students will develop an increased appreciation of the Bible with a more in-depth understanding of the text’s historical, sociological and literary merit relative to both ancient culture and their contemporary world.”
The job opening lists a requirement of a minimum of 12 hours of college credit in biblical studies.
In its complaint, Americans United says the district isn’t following its own course description: “Simply put, this class is not academic study of the Bible; it is a Sunday school class. There is no academic discussion of any of the material, instead it is bare recitation of devotional biblical stories and memorization of proselytizing passages. Christianity is endorsed and other religions are mocked and denigrated. All of this is a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And the Hamilton County Schools should well know this, because an earlier version of the course was declared unconstitutional because it presented similar devotional instruction.”
History of Bible history classes
The Freedom Forum Institute reports that it is exceptionally difficult to craft a Bible history class for a public school that meets constitutional muster and does not, at the same time, reduce the religious significance of the text.
“Such a course would need to include non-biblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives,” the institute advises. “Students would study archeological findings and other historical evidence in order to understand the history and cultures of the ancient world. Teachers who may be assigned to teach a history course focused on the Bible need a great deal of preparation and sophistication.”
“Teachers who may be assigned to teach a history course focused on the Bible need a great deal of preparation and sophistication.”
This is why most districts that previously offered Bible history courses have either ditched them altogether or switched to a Bible as literature approach, the institute says. “Academic study of the Bible in a public secondary school may appropriately take place in literature courses. Students might study the Bible as literature. They would examine the Bible as they would other literature in terms of aesthetic categories, as an anthology of narratives and poetry, exploring its language, symbolism and motifs. Students might also study the Bible in literature, the ways in which later writers have used Bible literature, language and symbols. Much drama, poetry and fiction contains material from the Bible.”
While Bible lit and Bible history classes were popular in many Southern states in the 1970s and ’80s, they increasingly met Constitutional challenges. However, in recent years a conservative group has launched a national blitz to return these classes to public schools.
In Chattanooga, an independent nonprofit organization has existed since 1922 to promote Bible classes in public schools. This is the group’s centennial year.
Although Bible teachers are hired by the district and are school employees, their compensation is funneled to the district by this group, Bible in the Schools.
Although Bible teachers are hired by the district and are school employees, their compensation is funneled to the district by this group, Bible in the Schools. Its website explains: “Bible in the Schools raises the funds that are then gifted to Hamilton County Schools for the specific use of the Bible History program. Since no tax funds are used, Bible in the Schools is the conduit through which the community gives charitably to provide Bible History electives to local public schools. Bible in the Schools reimburses the school system annually for the complete costs of the county-wide Bible History program. Included in reimbursement costs are: teacher salaries, benefits, taxes, teacher professional development training, classroom materials, and the textbooks (the Bible) for over 4,600 students in all participating schools.”
A national council promoting Bible classes
There’s even a National Council on Bible Curriculum that offers resources and advocates for Bible classes in public schools nationwide. Its website declares: “It’s coming back and it’s our constitutional right!”
This group, which features Chuck Norris as a spokesman, erroneously claims that “the Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, our educational system, and our entire history until the last 20 to 30 years.”
Americans United and other religious liberty groups frequently call out the Constitutional danger in these public school Bible classes. Americans United has created a “Know Your Rights” guide to address the religious-freedom rights and responsibilities of public school students, families and teachers.
In a news release announcing the action against Hamilton County Schools, Americans United noted this is only the latest religious liberty violation that has drawn its attention in Tennessee. Another Tennessee school board recently made national headlines by banning the book Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust.
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It was fundamentalists who taught me about soul competency, and now they want to ban books? | Opinion by Susan Shaw
From Texas to Tennessee, evangelical parents are trying to take the ‘public’ out of public education | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
It’s time to stop the insanity that is killing public education | Opinion by Mark Wingfield