FLORENCE — Bible class isn't just for Alabama's private or parochial schools anymore.
A bill sponsored by Alabama Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, allows elective courses on the Bible to be available beginning this fall in the state's public school systems.
But for most local systems, the bill was passed too late for them to add a Bible class because schedules, for the most part, were already completed for the fall 2019 semester.
The exception was Florence City Schools, which will offer a Bible class as a Literature elective, a course that was already state approved.
Florence Superintendent Jimmy Shaw said it's too early to say if the course will come together, as there needs to be 12 to 15 students requesting it to provide the class.
"We appreciate the option of being able to offer it, but we'll just let the students decide if they want to take the course," Shaw said. "It wasn't a major issue for us."
The bill, according to Melson, was somewhat open-ended and doesn't require schools to offer the course.
As the bill was written, the Bible class would be offered as a social studies elective in grades sixth through 12th.
Melson said the course can fit into whatever category a school deems necessary, such as literature or social studies/history.
"It was developed more under the history area, but the schools can craft the course," Melson said. "In the classroom setting, it's designed to be a non-denominational study of the history of the Bible, how countries developed and how it influenced civilizations throughout the world."
The State Department of Education is still developing guidance and regulations for local schools to use with the new course.
Melton said it was never designed to be controversial as "the moral aspect and history of the Bible is valuable information to be taught."
The law specifies that the state's attorney general will defend any local board of education that is sued due to the course offering. Legal fees incurred by a board would be paid by state taxpayers, allocated through the Legislature.
Other area education officials believe the moral values and rich history presented in the Bible are a positive for students.
Sheffield City Schools Superintendent Keith Davis said he supports the addition of the class, and hopes to have it in the lineup of elective options next year.
"This course provides the historical basis for something most of these kids have at least been exposed to," Davis said. "Anything with a strong moral foundation is good. It's good for the kids to understand the culture in which they live."
Russ Tate, Tuscumbia's director of Curriculum and Instruction, said the bill wasn't approved in time to get the class approved for the fall, but if there's enough request, "We'll do everything we can to make it happen in the future."
Tate said it would fall in line with English courses in his district. There's already a class period built into the school day schedule that would allow for it to be added, a 44-minute "skinny period," he said.
"We're open to this class offering, but we've not discussed it as a staff and our first priority is in making sure our kids get the core classes they must have to graduate," Tate said. "This isn't a religion class, but using the Bible as literature."
Colbert County schools don't have the Bible class in their schedule of course offerings this year. Superintendent Gale Satchel said there will be a needs assessment done first to determine if 10 or more students are interested.
"We've looked at it as a high school elective only," Satchel said, adding that it would be more history/social studies based.
"For us, it would depend on what the students want and what the teacher could teach," she said.
Muscle Shoals Superintendent Brian Lindsey said educators in his district haven't discussed offering the course, and it's "not on our radar at this time."
Les Abston, Lauderdale County's Secondary Curriculum director, said the course hasn't been requested in his district this year.
"I fully expect it to be for next school year," he said.
Dexter Rutherford, principal at Mars Hill Bible School and former Lawrence County superintendent, said having worked in both the private and public sectors of education, he sees the benefit of such a class for all students.
"I don't think you can ever do too much to expose children to spiritual values," Rutherford said. "The schools need to reinforce values, though naturally a specific religious belief would have to be avoided."
Rutherford said he supports the bill for public schools and says it isn't about indoctrinating students.
"It's about teaching the history and values that bode well for life, such as service to others and that's always a good thing," he said.