OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma's top education official ordered public schools Thursday to incorporate the Bible into lessons for grades 5 through 12, the latest effort by conservatives to incorporate religion into classrooms.

The directive drew immediate condemnation from civil rights groups and supporters of the separation of church and state, with some calling it an abuse of power and a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Oklahoma Republican State Superintendent Ryan Walters sent the order to teach the Bible to districts across the state, saying adherence to the mandate is compulsory and “immediate and strict compliance is expected.”

“The Bible is an indispensable historical and cultural touchstone,” Walters said in a statement. “Without basic knowledge of it, Oklahoma students are unable to properly contextualize the foundation of our nation which is why Oklahoma educational standards provide for its instruction.”

Oklahoma law already explicitly allows Bibles in the classroom and lets teachers use them in instruction, said Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for state Attorney General Gentner Drummond.

But it's not clear if Walters has the authority to mandate that schools teach it. State law says individual school districts have the exclusive authority to decide on instruction, curriculum, reading lists, instructional materials and textbooks.

The head of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the directive as a clear violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion.

“We adamantly oppose any requirements that religion be forcefully taught or required as a part of lesson plans in public schools, in Oklahoma, or anywhere else in the country,” Adam Soltani said in a statement.

“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement. “This is textbook Christian Nationalism: Walters is abusing the power of his public office to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else's children. Not on our watch.”

The directive is the latest salvo in an effort by conservative-led states to target public schools: Louisiana has required them to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, while others are under pressure to teach the Bible and ban books and lessons about race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Earlier this week the Oklahoma Supreme Court blocked an attempt by the state to have the first publicly funded religious charter school in the country.

A former public school teacher who was elected to his post in 2022, Ryan Walters ran on a platform of fighting “woke ideology,” banning books from school libraries and getting rid of “radical leftists” who he claims are indoctrinating children in classrooms.

He has clashed with leaders in both parties for his focus on culture-war issues including transgender rights and banning books, and in January he faced criticism for appointing a right-wing social media influencer from New York to a state library committee.

Sean Murphy is the statehouse reporter for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City. He has covered Oklahoma news and politics since 1996.

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