Fiercely debated legislation last year to put a Bible course in public schools has landed in the hands of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion on what it means.
And that's hardly a surprise, since state lawmakers couldn't agree on what the wording meant last May when they passed HB 1287, the so-called "Bible bill."
Just about everyone agrees a Bible course cannot be used to endorse, promote or disparage any faith and that the purpose of the class is to help students understand the Bible as literature.
But Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has called on Abbott to referee one of the bill's most contentious points: Are public high schools required to offer a Bible course if at least 15 students request it?
The bill's author, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who carried the legislation in the Senate, emphatically contend it was intended to obligate school districts to offer the course in high schools if the 15-student threshold is met.
"If a certain number of students request it, yes, they must do it. I don't think if a group gets together and says, 'Yes, we want to do this,' the school system should have to say, 'No, you can't,' " Estes said.
Chisum also referred to a separate State Board of Education rule requiring school districts to offer courses if requested by 10 students.
But Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, an acknowledged expert on public education issues, said the mandatory provisions of the bill were removed before it passed.
"It's totally permissive," Hochberg said. "There is no course requirement. Under the rules of legislative construction, I don't know any other way to read it."
House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, circulated a memo last May clarifying several amendments to the bill, including one respecting local control "by giving school boards the right to decide" whether to offer the Bible course.
"What about 'local control' is confusing here?" said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which fought to keep the bill from being mandatory. "Chairman Eissler's memo makes it clear that the committee's amended bill left the decision to local schools to make.
"With so many priorities competing for education dollars, that would seem to make a lot of sense to most taxpayers," she continued.
Another uncertainty hovering over the Bible bill is the absence of funding for the required teacher training, estimated by the Texas Education Agency to cost $250,000 the first year, $500,000 the second year and $50,000 annually after that.
"Due to that lack of funding ... the agency is not developing that training," Scott said in his letter to Abbott.
Proper training for a Bible course taught in public schools is imperative, Hochberg said.
"Teaching biblical history separately from preaching the Bible requires thought and planning and knowledge, particularly in an environment where you are attempting to teach to people with very different views on religion," Hochberg said.
The notion that lawmakers did not fund the training requirement baffles Chisum, who is not only the bill's author but also chairs the House Appropriations Committee that writes the state budget.
"We may not have had it specifically named in there for that specific (purpose) because there's no way we'd know how many people were going to need training," Chisum said.