Georgia is poised to introduce two literature classes on the Bible in public schools next year, a move some critics say would make the state the first to take an explicit stance endorsing — and funding — biblical teachings.
The Bible already is incorporated into some classes in Georgia and other states, but some critics say the board's move, which makes the Bible the classes' main text, treads into dangerous turf.
On a list of classes approved Thursday by the Georgia Board of Education are Literature and History of the Old Testament Era, and Literature and History of the New Testament Era. The classes, approved last year by the Legislature, will not be required, and the state's 180 school systems can decide for themselves whether to offer them.
The school board's unanimous vote set up a 30-day public comment period, after which it is expected to give final approval.
Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, the Republican who sponsored the plan, said the Bible plays a major role in history and is important in understanding many classic literary works.
"It's not just 'The Good Book,'" Williams said. "It's a good book."
Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan civil liberties group, has said the Georgia policy is the nation's first to endorse and fund Bible classes on a statewide level.
The bill approved overwhelmingly in the Legislature was tailored to make it clear the courses would not stray into religious teaching, Williams said.
The measure calls for the courses to be taught "in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."
But critics say that while the language may pass constitutional muster, that could change in the classroom if instructors stray.
Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel for the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the curriculum approved Tuesday — like the legislation itself — is vague.
"They didn't put in any outlines describing what they can and can't do constitutionally," she said. "The same traps are there for teachers who decide to teach the class."
Some teachers might seek to include their own beliefs or be pushed by students into conversations that include religious proselytizing, Garrett said.
During last year's campaign-period legislative session, Democrats surprised majority Republicans by introducing a plan to teach the Bible in public schools. Republicans, who control both chambers, quickly responded with their own version, which passed and was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue.