DES MOINES — An Iowa legislative panel on Tuesday approved a bill directing the state Department of Education to establish standards for an elective social studies course on Hebrew Scriptures or the Bible.

The action came despite warnings that it could be costly and discussion that 100 Iowa school districts already offer similar electives, such as world religions and comparative religion.

House File 2031 would allow high schools to offer a social studies elective to provide students knowledge of biblical content “that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture.”

Chuck Hurley of the Family Leader told a House Education subcommittee it’s important for students to learn about the biblical influences in American history and culture.

“For our students not to have that knowledge would be inappropriate,” he said.

Subcommittee Chairman Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, said classes would give students a “baseline academic knowledge of the Bible,” which is important “because of the specific impact the Bible has had on our culture.”

The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund had no problem with that, “but our issue is that this bill is choosing one book over another, one religion over another,” its lobbyist, Connie Ryan, said.

Generally, conservative and faith-related groups lined up behind the bill. Some mainline church groups, however, are registered as undecided. Groups promoting civil rights, gay and lesbian rights and the teachers’ union opposed it.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired teacher, called the bill unneeded because, according to the Department of Education, 111 Iowa school districts — about one third of all districts — offer some sort of elective course addressing religion.

In addition, Mascher said the bill would set a costly precedent for the department to establish standards for all electives offered by Iowa schools.

“Going down that rabbit hole of having the department establish standards for all electives is ridiculous and cost-prohibitive,” she said.

The department doesn’t set standards for electives.

For comparison, Stefanie Wager of the Iowa Department of Education said about $80,000 was spent writing standards for the Iowa Core curriculum. Costs might not be that high for one course, but the department could incur considerable expense to do the necessary research, bring in writing teams, usually teachers, and conduct public forums.

“At a time we are starving our schools, $80,000 makes no sense,” Mascher said.

Wheeler and Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, both sponsors of HF 2031, signed the bill, moving it forward. Mascher said she would bring amendments to the Education Committee to establish similar courses to teach the Koran and Torah as well as establish standards for other electives.

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City Editor/Bettendorf News Editor

Liz Boardman is the Quad-City Times City Editor, manages the Economy section and Bettendorf News, and is the house Freedom of Information Act geek. A Rock Island native, she joined the Times in 2016.