Oklahoma's top education official orders Bible instruction in public schools

Oklahoma's top education official has sparked controversy by mandating that public schools incorporate the Bible into lesson plans for grades 5 through 12, angering civil rights groups.

In a memo issued Thursday, Republican State Superintendent Ryan Walters directed school leaders statewide to include the Bible in their curriculums, calling it essential to Western civilization.

"It is essential that our kids have an understanding of the Bible and its historical context," Walters said.

Authority to mandate biblical instruction 

Walters argues that state law and academic standards permit the Bible's use in public education. Oklahoma social studies standards include biblical stories and scriptures from other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.

However, it's unclear if Walters can enforce this mandate. State law gives school districts the exclusive right to set curriculum and instructional materials.

RELATED: Civil liberties groups sue over Louisiana law mandating Ten Commandments in classrooms

Andy Fugitt, an attorney with the Oklahoma Center for Educational Law, told the Associated Press that many districts are seeking guidance on Walters’ directive. He expects the order will face legal challenges from groups concerned about violating the Establishment Clause.

National context 

Oklahoma’s mandate is part of a broader trend in conservative-led states. Louisiana now requires schools to display the Ten Commandments, and other states are pushing for Bible instruction and limiting lessons on race and gender.

Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked an attempt to establish the nation’s first publicly funded religious charter school.

"There have been instances where efforts to remove religion from the public sphere have gone too far," Richard Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame, told the Associated Press. "Now you're seeing adjustments."

Reaction to the order 

The directive has outraged civil rights groups and advocates for church-state separation. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is suing Louisiana over its Ten Commandments law, vowed to fight Walters’ order.

"Walters’ concern should be the fact that Oklahoma ranks 45th in education," the foundation's co-president Dan Barker told the Associated Press. "Maybe education would improve if Oklahoma’s superintendent focused on education instead of religion."

Bob Gragg, superintendent of Seminole Public Schools, voiced his concerns despite his personal practice of reading the Bible daily.

"With the separation, I believe church and state are made stronger," Gragg told the Associated Press. "(Walters) is treading a slippery slope that could have grave consequences for our schools, churches, families, state, and nation."