House Education passes Bible-in-schools bill

The House Education Committee approved a Bible-in-schools bill Thursday despite a warning from the attorney general’s office and concerns from lawmakers about costly lawsuits.

Pushed by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, Senate Bill 1342 states that the Bible and other religious texts are specifically permitted in public schools for reference purposes.

Last month, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane issued a legal opinion on the original wording of Nuxoll’s bill. Kane wrote the bill “may raise a religious preference issue” and “in any event, is specifically prohibited by Article Nine, Section Six of the Idaho Constitution.”

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Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise

Committee Democrats and Twin Falls Republican Rep. Lance Clow all cited Kane’s concerns.

“We’re on less than thin ice at that point,” said Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, a Harvard-trained attorney. “This will be legally challenged and it will be thrown out and we will pay the legal fees of the people to challenge it.”

Rep. Ryan Kerby. R-New Plymouth, wasn’t worried about the cost of potential lawsuits.

“We will have lawsuits, that is kind of the nature of any governmental situation,” Kerby said. “It may be a lawsuit and it may cost us a few bucks and I think we will likely prevail.”

Kerby, the retired superintendent of the New Plymouth School District, went on to say “there is a lot of confusion out there” among educators about how and whether they can use the Bible in schools.

However, the leaders of three prominent local education groups told Idaho Education News earlier this month that they have not heard any confusion anywhere. The statewide education groups represent teachers, school board members and school administrators.

“We have not heard any district or charter school ask questions about whether, or how, they could use the Bible in schools,” said Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association.

Kerby also warned fellow committee members “we will continue to erode support for public schools by the general public” if we don’t pass the bill.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, also backed the bill.

“If teachers decide to use the Bible as a reference, usually there is great opposition,” Dixon said. He continued by stating that if teachers instead introduced Buddhism or Islam into the classroom “there is no opposition to that.”

Clow unsuccessfully attempted to send the bill out for amendments to remove all references to the Bible. When his motion failed, he joined the committee’s three Democrats in opposing the bill. Every other Republican on the committee supported it.

The committee accepted public testimony and debated the bill for more than an hour on Wednesday before the meeting was abruptly cut off for running long.

The bill next heads to the House floor, its final legislative hurdle. It cleared the Senate 31-3 on March 7.

In other Statehouse action Thursday:

‘Blaine Amendment.’ In the afternoon, the House and Senate education committees delved into another issue centered on religion — and the same section of state Constitution at the heart of the Bible-in-schools bill. They held an informal — and essentially academic — discussion of amending the so-called “Blaine Amendment.”

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Rep. Ronald Nate, R-Rexburg

Rep. Ronald Nate, R-Rexburg, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the use of state money to provide “grants, scholarships, loans or other assistance to students or parents of students.” And this time around, Nate pitched the amendment as a starting point to open up a “world of choices” — such as a voucher system or education savings accounts.

In January, Nate couched his House Joint Resolution 1 as a clarification of sorts — to provide legal protection for students and parents who use state-funded scholarships to attend church-owned colleges. (Nate teaches at Mormon Church-owned BYU-Idaho.) In a House Education hearing at the time, he downplayed the voucher issue.

On Thursday, Nate took a different tone and tack. “Choice and competition has made life better for the consumer and the producer.”

The argument is moot, as far as this session is concerned. HJR 1 has been held in the House State Affairs Committee for nearly two months, and neither education committee could even vote on the proposal.

Taxes. The latest salvo in this year’s House-Senate showdown on taxes was over almost before it began.

In a matter of a few minutes, the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee shot down House Bill 380, a $27.8 million package to reduce income taxes and increase the grocery tax credit.

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Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star

The bill passed the House on Feb. 3, and has been parked in Senate committee since then. When it came up Thursday afternoon, a motion to send the bill to the Senate floor died for lack of support. When that happened, the bill was held for the year. (More about Thursday’s meeting from Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.)

This may not be the last word on taxes, though. Last week, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee sent an Internet sales tax bill to the House floor for amendment. At the time, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said he would look to amend the bill to fold in tax cuts.

Moyle, R-Star, sponsored HB 380.

Growing districts. A divided House Education Committee also advanced a late-session bill designed to help school districts experiencing enrollment growth during the middle of the year.

Pushed by Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, House Bill 603 would provide a funding boost to districts that experience at least a 3 percent increase in classroom units during the year.

In legislative and budget circles, classroom units are called support units.

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Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle

For districts that meet the 3 percent threshold, they would expect to see a funding increase corresponding to 75 percent of that growth.

So if a district began with 100 classroom units and the number increased to 104 during the same year, the district would receive funding for three extra classroom units.

DeMordaunt described his bill as a short-term fix designed to help districts while a newly appointed funding committee seeks long-term solutions.

However, the bill ran into trouble when several Republicans said it does not do enough to help all districts that experience enrollment growth. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, pushed for changes to provide funding for all growing districts — not just the ones that hit the 3 percent threshold.

A motion to send the bill out for amendments failed on a 7-6 vote. DeMordaunt himself did not cast a vote.

In the end, committee members advanced the bill, unchanged, on a voice vote.

The bill next heads to the House floor.

DeMordaunt estimated his bill would cost a little more than $1 million next year. So far, budget-writers have not appropriated funding for his bill, but the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has said it is willing to augment the school budget if new programs pass both legislative chambers.

Key legislators have said they are working to adjourn the session for the year next week.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.