Bible courses in public schools are receiving a level of attention not witnessed in decades, and their increased numbers create greater potential for local conflicts and lawsuits over whether they promote religion and violate the First Amendment. Such courses are relatively understudied, and their contents and the paths by which schools decide to offer them are largely unknown. One district that has experienced both conflict and lawsuit over its Bible course is Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, where a 2005––2008 dispute pitted townspeople and national organizations against each other. This article uses the Odessa controversy as a case study to demonstrate how Bible courses provide a unique window into the confusion found at the intersection of American public education, the study of religion, and church-state relations. Drawing upon school district documents, recordings of school board meetings, journalistic accounts, legal documents, press releases, Bible curricula produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and the Bible Literacy Project, and course materials from district high schools, it traces the development of the conflict. It examines the role that appeals to the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause played in the controversy, confusion over what is legally acceptable in public schools, particularly in regard to historicity issues, and the difficulty in developing a genuinely nonsectarian course. It contextualizes the Odessa debate within Christian Right efforts to influence public schools and larger American society, efforts often grounded in the claim that America is a Christian nation. Controversies such as Odessa's illustrate the tensions produced in American society by competing notions of religious freedom and American identity.
- ©© 2009 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture