Bible classes in public schools spur church-state debates

Thursday, October 28, 1999

A couple of public school classes that center on Christianity in Ohio and Tennessee districts have come under attack as possible constitutional violations.

Last week a school board in northwest Ohio voted to dump a religion course that had been taught at the Arcadia Local School District and sponsored by area churches. David Lewis, superintendent of the K-12 school district in Hancock County, and county attorneys had asked the board to discontinue the class after parents complained that it ran afoul of the separation of church and state.

The class focused on Bible stories and songs and was taught by area Christian clergy. “If we maintain the program, we'll be facing a legal challenge we can't win,” Lewis told the Akron Beacon Journal. “And I've been told by more than one person that's what we're facing if we don't drop the class.”

Meanwhile, school district officials in eastern Tennessee contemplated dropping Bible classes taught in its elementary schools after an attorney in the Rhea County school district said they might violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the Tennessee Constitution. The attorney's advice, however, only spurred public support for the classes and an editorial from a local weekly newspaper, The Herald-News, calling for biblical training in the district's elementary schools.

Dan Hill, an attorney in Rhea County, told The Herald-News that he provided school officials with “a great deal of legal research” regarding the teaching of the Bible in public schools in an effort to show that the district “may be violating the First Amendment to the United States Constitution” as well as the state's constitution.

The Bible classes are taught by students from nearby Bryan College, a private institution created in honor of William Jennings Bryan, an early 19th-century moralist politician who made several presidential runs and led a fundamentalist movement to prevent the teaching of evolution in public schools. Bryan College's Web site states its “basic purpose” is to “educate students to become servants of Christ who will make a difference in today's world.”

Before the Rhea County School Board overwhelmingly voted on Oct. 14 to keep the Bible classes in the elementary schools, The Herald-News on Oct. 10 opined that “no other movement has had a greater impact on American history and culture than Christianity, not feminism, not the civil rights movement and not public education,” and that “educational integrity” required that the classes be taught.

Rhea County School Board member Steve Cook, the only dissenting vote, said he believed in the separation of church and state and that “Sunday school and school lessons do not mix.”

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said that her office had just yesterday learned of the situation in Rhea County and that she was trying to find out more about the school district's classes.

“Clearly it is disconcerting that our officials are choosing to violate the constitutional guarantee that ensures government will not proselytize or promote particular religious beliefs,” Weinberg said. “Moreover, the fact that the classes are being taught by Bryan College students indicates that they are being taught as a religious curriculum.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in its 1963 decision in Abington v. Schempp concluded, in part, that Bible study in public schools was constitutional as long as it was conducted “objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

In their 1998 book, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, Warren Nord, a philosophy of religion professor at the University of North Carolina, and Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center's senior scholar, state that “the purpose of studying religion in a public school is not to initiate students into a religious tradition; rather, it is to inform students about various religions, the different ways they have been understood, their relationships to one another, and their implications for how to make sense of the world, fairly.”