Lawmaker: Bill Held Constitutional by “The Little Supreme Court in My Head”

BibleIt's historical! (image: Kevin Eng via Flickr)

Short quiz. Here’s how Idaho Code section 33-1604 currently reads. Is it constitutional?

BIBLE READING IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Selections from the Bible, to be chosen from a list prepared from time to time by the state board of education, shall be read daily to each occupied classroom in each school district. Such reading shall be without comment or interpretation. Any question by any pupil shall be referred for answer to the pupil’s parent or guardian.

Assume for purposes of your answer that there are no similar provisions entitled KORAN READING IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS or JEWISH BOOK READING IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, or anything of that sort.

Choose one: (a) no (b) obviously not (c) of course not (d) all of the above.

This law was passed in 1963. It is cited in exactly one case: the 1964 decision holding that it violated the First Amendment. (Yes, I noticed that the citation is 232 F. Supp. 666. Yes, I am sure it is a coincidence.) Although the court didn’t need to go any further, the law would also have violated the state constitution, which specifically says: “No sectarian or religious tenets or doctrines shall ever be taught in the public schools,” and “No books … of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used” in those schools.

As is so often the case, although the law has been unenforceable since before the ink dried on the first copy, it has been sitting there on the books for over 50 years. Well, good news: the state legislature has finally decided to get rid of itSB 1342, which has passed both houses and is on its way to the governor’s desk, would replace the provision above with a new one saying this:

USE OF THE BIBLE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The use of religious texts, including the Bible, is expressly permitted to be used in Idaho public schools for reference purposes to further the study of literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study where an understanding of religious texts, including the Bible, may be useful or relevant. No student will be required to use any religious texts for reference purposes if the student or parents of the student object. This section shall not be construed to permit religious or doctrinal instruction.

Oh dear.

Anyone who may be thinking that the intent was to support the use of all religious texts, not just the Bible, should stop thinking that. The first version of the bill mentioned only the Bible, and although it was amended, as you can see they forgot to change the title (or to fix the grammar in the first sentence). Also, the sponsors make the same sort of pretend legal arguments that always get made at times like these—for example, they have apparently “argued that the Bible is nonsectarian and nondenominational,” which is a hoot, and have claimed that “the reason the bill mentions only the Bible” specifically “is because the Bible alone is under attack,” which is a further hoot.

This is setting aside the hoot-inducing qualities of the idea that they just want Bible readings to help the kids understand archaeology, for example. And which book of the Bible is it that covers U.S. history? (Oh, it’s Revelations? … Yeah, I can see that. That makes a lot of sense, actually.)

The bill passed the House 54-15-1, which means that exactly one Republican crossed party lines to vote no. That was Rep. Fred Wood, who said he wanted to make clear he was voting against not just the bill but also religion and the Bible. No, wait, sorry—not against them, Fred Wood is not against those last two things. “I just want my constituents to know,” he said, that “this is not a vote against religion or the Bible or anything else,” he said. Well, it’s a vote against something. What is it a vote against? “What this is a vote against,” he continued, “is needlessly wasting the taxpayers’ dollars.”

And although he’s obviously a little conflicted, he’s absolutely right about that: the law will be challenged and that challenge will succeed, costing the taxpayers an estimated $400,000 in legal fees. Because even if the law could sneak past a First Amendment challenge—not that it could—there is the further problem that the state constitution says “no books of a sectarian or denominational character shall be used” in public schools and the title of the law is USE OF THE BIBLE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. So, a big waste of time and money shall ensue, should the governor sign this thing.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Sage Dixon, was undeterred, even by the state attorney general’s opinion that the law would in fact violate at least the state constitution. “The little Supreme Court in my head says this is okay,” Dixon said. He didn’t say how the little justices voted but I bet they were unanimous.

Then there’s also the problem that Louisiana faced when considering making the Bible its official state book: Which Bible? Wait—there’s more than one? Yep, turns out there is. Louisiana wisely tabled that bill, so it never had to answer the question or spend any money on legal fights. Idaho, art thou not as wise?

Update: Idaho’s governor, C. L. “Butch” Otter, vetoed the bill on April 5 (ABC News, Governor’s veto message, a later post by me) saying he was personally opposed to both religion and the Bible—no, wait, sorry, not against them, Gov. Otter is not against those two things, in fact he said he has “deep respect and appreciation for the Bible as religious doctrine as well as a piece of historic literature.” But, he noted, the bill is in “direct contravention to the Idaho Constitution [among others] and it could result in the loss of funding and costly litigation for Idaho public schools.”