DALLAS — Students in a West Texas town will have the opportunity to take a class not offered in most public high schools — Bible studies.
Tuesday night was not a usual Odessa school board meeting. There was full house, as more than 300 people rallied to voice their support for the proposed Bible class. Outside, the scene was more like a church service than a public meeting as supporters sang and prayed.
All but a few people who showed up at the meeting supported the measure, and in the end the Ector County School Board put its stamp of approval on the idea with a unanimous vote. The decision was met with a standing ovation and cheers.
Support with some debate
There appears to be broad support in the community for putting the Bible into the classroom. More than 6,000 residents signed a petition supporting the proposal, which was first brought to the board last month.
The decision did not come without some debate though. Floy Hinson, an Ector County School Board member, expressed concern the panel was acting too quickly.
“We approve the administration to review curriculums,” said Hinson. “I have no problem with that, but I do want that curriculum opened to the public.” In the end, though, Hinson voted to add the class.
Her thoughts on the speed with which the board acted also concerned Becki Smith, another Odessa resident. Smith was one of the few in the crowd who pushed for the board to approach the topic cautiously.
“I just think this is a very sensitive issue… it’s very divisive,” said Smith. “It could turn into a huge constitutional fight.”
Not unheard of in West Texas
That hasn’t been an issue in another West Texas town. In Big Spring, Texas, about 50 miles from Odessa, the public high school has offered elective Bible studies classes for more than six decades.
“In the 19 years of my employment with Big Spring Independent School District, I don’t remember any resistance or controversy at all with Bible curriculum being taught to our high school students,” said Big Spring High School Principal Mike Ritchey. “I hope Humanities will be offered for another 65 years,” he said referring to the Bible class.
Ritchey explained that the class is funded by a ministerial group made up of countywide ministers, pastors, and business leaders. The non-profit organization raises money to fund the salaries of the instructors teaching in the three schools in Howard County.
The other two high schools in the county that teach the Bible courses are Coahoma High School and Forsan High School. Currently, 90 students are enrolled in the class at Big Spring High School.
Bringing the bible back
The vote in Odessa will actually bring the Bible back into the school. Ector County last offered a class of this type 26 years ago. It will be at least a year before the elective makes its way into Odessa’s two high schools. The projected timeline for the first Bible class is August 2006, at the earliest.
Adela Vasquez, a spokeswoman for the Ector County School District, said that “District Subject Area Coordinators”(teachers and administrators) will be leading the effort in developing a non-devotional curriculum that focuses on academic areas. The Bible class will be taught as a history or literature course elective. The teaching plan will be made available for the public to see before it is put into practice in the classroom.
Vasquez also added that the class is likely to focus on the Bible’s impact on America’s founding fathers. It will also instruct on the influence of the Bible in art and culture. Geography of Middle Eastern countries could also be taught.
School officials in Odessa say the large turnout at the board meeting in support of the proposed class shows that this is something the community wants its young people to have the option of learning.
According to Elizabeth Ridenour with the National Council on Bible Curriculums in Public Schools over 1,100 public high schools in the United States currently use the councils’ developed curriculum for the study of the Bible at the high school level.
Eva Parks is NBC News' Dallas bureau coordinator.