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JEFFERSON CITY • A state lawmaker who is a minister and dean of students at a religious college in southwestern Missouri wants public high school students to learn more about the Bible.

Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, is sponsoring a proposal that would allow school boards in the state to offer a high school elective course on the Old Testament and the New Testament.

“The Bible is simply a part of the fabric of life,” Baker told members of a House committee Tuesday.

The measure, among three similar proposals being considered in the House and Senate, would require state education officials to develop learning standards and curriculum guidelines for the courses.

The classes would include the contents of the Bible, its history, the literary style and structure, and the book’s influences on society.

Baker, a freshman lawmaker who works at Ozark Bible College in Neosho, acknowledged his idea might draw opposition from those who want to see a separation between the church and state.

“This is something, for whatever reason over the course of time, has caused a lot of controversy,” Baker said. “Obviously, there is going to be controversy.”

Some of the strongest opposition came from a fellow pastor.

Brian Kaylor, pastor at Second Baptist Church in Jefferson City, slammed the legislation, telling members of the House Special Committee on Student Accountability that the government should stay out of Bible teachings.

“I oppose this legislation not because I oppose the Bible,” Kaylor said. “The Bible cannot be reduced to merely an elective high school class. The Bible is inherently religious, and we cannot pretend otherwise.

“I do not need the state teaching my son the Bible,” Kaylor said.

State Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, was among those wary of the proposal, saying schools currently can use the Bible as reference material.

“It can already be done without this bill,” Shields said. “It’s one more bill when schools have the ability to do this now.”

Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, a former religion teacher at a Catholic school, also expressed doubt about Baker’s initiative, which has played out in other states as part of a national effort by special interest groups.

“It looks to me like we’re opening up the opportunity to — maybe intentionally, maybe unintentionally — promoting one religion over another,” Burnett said.

Rep. Matt Sain, D-Kansas City, said the legislation would promote Christianity and, in turn, advance one particular religion over another.

“There’s a constitutional issue here,” Sain said.

But Baker said putting the issue on the statute books would alleviate fear by school districts of possible legal action.

“It’s just for clarity’s sake,” Baker said.

Christian activist Chuck Stetson, a founder of the Bible Literacy Project promoting the academic study of the religious text, said the Bible was the origin of many modern Western values and should form an essential component of any young person’s education.

“The Quran doesn’t come up in the plays of Shakespeare,” Stetson said.

Mary Byrne, a conservative education activist from Springfield, also said having a background in the Bible could help students understand the basis for the founding of America.

“Our children are biblically illiterate,” Byrne said.

The proposal is similar to initiatives underway in other states, including Virginia and West Virginia. In North Dakota, lawmakers rejected a nearly identical bill on constitutional grounds.

Rep. Vic Allred, R-Parkville, said, “I think any Bible study at the high school level is a great idea.”

Rep. Bradley Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said he supported the idea because the class would be offered as an elective.

“Students who don’t want to hear it, they don’t have to take it,” Pollitt said.

The committee voted 8-2 to forward the legislation to the full House for further debate. Burnett and Sain cast the “no” votes.

The legislation is House Bill 267.

Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch