PHOENIX - The Bible and its role in Western culture would be the subject of an elective high school course under a bill that advanced out of the Arizona House on Tuesday.
The House's 42-15 vote sends the bill to the Senate. The House earlier rejected an attempt to expand the measure to allow course credit for teachings about scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Public schools across the country have generally avoided Bible courses, but hundreds offer such classes as electives. At least five other states have passed legislation similar to the Arizona proposal.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned ceremonial Bible readings in schools but said "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" so long as material is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."
The Arizona bill directs the state Board of Education to design a course that schools could offer as an elective if they choose.
Republican Rep. Terri Proud of Tucson, the bill's sponsor, has said students would benefit from the course because biblical references are everywhere. She has said the course would not be forced on schools or students.
Critics said the legislation is unnecessary and could be ruled unconstitutional if challenged as favoring one religion over others.
"This is a constitutional issue. This has nothing to do with this particular faith. This has nothing to do with this particular document," said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.
The House vote mostly tracked party lines, with all but one Republican voting in favor and all but three Democrats opposed.
Proud said Tuesday she was disappointed in how the vote turned out.
"This is isn't about being Republican or about being Democrat," she said. "This is about America as a whole. The key is for all sides to step back and give first consideration to the principles that bind us together as a people."
Proud has said teachers in her legislative district told her they have a fear of mentioning Christianity or the Bible.
Defending the bill, and Proud's work on it, House Education Chairwoman Doris Goodale said the proposed course would explore how the Bible influenced American society and culture.
"It is not religion," said Goodale, R-Kingman.
Rep. Ed Ableser, a Tempe Democrat who is Mormon, unsuccessfully tried to have the bill expanded to include the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures.
"I feel that many children have a right to learn about that as well and receive credit," Ableser said.