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Bibles in the Classroom?


It's OK, but be sure to teach, not preach.



It certainly is a growing trend: Bible classes in the public schools.

A 2004 Gallup poll found 8 percent of public schools sponsor elective courses on the Bible. One publisher claims 423 school districts in 37 states have adopted its Bible curriculum, reaching over 220,000 students. Texas and Georgia recently passed laws authorizing schools to offer such electives, and Alabama added a book on the Bible to its list of approved texts. Last year, Time magazine ran a cover story on the phenomenon.      

But is all this legal? What about separation of church and state?

Both sides of the debate agree that the Bible is a great work of literature and a rich source of history, tales, and life lessons, and has influenced virtually all aspects of Western civilization.

So why has the Bible been expelled from the public schools, as some religious conservatives complain? Well it hasn't. In fact, 45 years ago in the case Abington Township v. Schempp, the Supreme Court said that it's entirely permissible for public schools to offer classes in "the study of the Bible," if they are "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education," adding, "[i]t certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities."

In other words, public schools can teach about the Bible as history or literature, as long as the approach is academic and not devotional, and doesn't present the Bible as religious truth.

But court decisions suggest that maintaining this distinction can be difficult; the devil, as they say, is in the details.

How to Teach About Religion

NEA has frequently been accused of trying to turn schools into "religion-free zones." That's simply not true.

NEA has endorsed three publications giving advice to teachers, parents, and administrators about religious activities in school such as school prayer, religious clubs, and teaching about religion and the Bible: "The Bible & Public Schools," "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools," and "Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy—A Statement of Principles."

All three are endorsed by a broad coalition of religious and education organizations, including the National School Boards Association, the Christian Legal Society, and the National Association of Evangelicals. Copies may be downloaded at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/.

At least four federal courts have struck down Bible classes. In 1981, for example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Alabama district's Bible curriculum because it presented "a fundamentalist Christian approach to the study of the Bible devoid of any discussion of its literary qualities."

Currently, two organizations are promoting different Bible curricula. One group, the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), has published the textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, used in 163 schools in 35 states. BLP says its curriculum is a carefully crafted "academic" study of the Bible and has been praised by groups, such as the American Jewish Congress, that historically have opposed religious practices in schools.

The competing group, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS), has been endorsed by many religious conservative organizations, including the Eagle Forum and the Family Research Council. It has sparked heated controversy and more than one lawsuit.

In 1998, a federal district court in Florida ruled that the NCBCPS Bible curriculum crossed the line by promoting Christianity and enjoined the Lee County School Board from implementing it without changes.

And last May, the Ector County (Texas) Independent School District was sued after it adopted the NCBCPS Bible curriculum. The plaintiffs, including the ACLU and People for the American Way, claim it "teaches the Bible as the literal, historical truth" and subjects students to exams that require them to mark as "true" or "false" faith-based statements such as: "Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday"; "When Jesus dies, the sun goes black"; and "Jesus ascended to heaven on the Mount of Olives." The case is pending.

Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel

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5-Feb-08