Bible curriculum before Georgia school board raises church-state debate

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

A proposal to teach the Bible in Georgia public high schools has prompted some citizens and a national civil rights group to raise constitutional questions.

Linda C. Schrenko, Georgia's state superintendent of schools, has given the State Board of Education a proposal for elective courses on “The Bible as History and Literature,” to be taught in high schools throughout the state. The Bible curriculum, which is similar to one that a Florida public school district attempted to implement last year, was created by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. The council is a nonprofit group based in Greensboro, N.C., that advocates classes to study the Bible as “a foundation document of society.”

According to the group, children have a First Amendment right to be familiarized with the Bible during secondary education. The group's Web site declares that there “has been a great social regression since the Bible was removed from our schools,” and that now is the time for schools to “refer to the original documents that inspired Americanism and our religious heritage.”

The group's curriculum is divided between “Bible I” and “Bible II,” and its textbook is the King James version. Early last year, a federal judge in Florida issued an order barring high schools in Ft. Myers from teaching most of the curriculum. U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich said the course improperly sought to teach New Testament stories, such as the resurrection, as secular history.

Georgia's State Board of Education was set to consider adopting the curriculum at a meeting this week. After comments from a religious-liberty scholar and national civil rights group raising concerns about the curriculum's constitutionality, Otis A. Brumby, Board of Education chairman, said he would ask the state's attorney general to decide whether the courses pass constitutional muster.

“It's the prudent thing to do,” Brumby told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution last week. “Obviously, it's a controversial subject. No one wins if you end up in court, except the lawyers.”

Asked by Nannette McGee, of the Georgia Department of Education, to comment on the group's Bible curriculum, Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, wrote in a letter to McGee in late July that the course outline “raises serious educational and constitutional issues.” Haynes, also co-author of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, said the Bible curriculum group's outline improperly “assumes that the Bible may be used as the basic text in a 'history' course,” and “fails to provide the teacher or the student with the necessary scholarly tools for dealing with the historicity of the Bible.”

Last week People for the American Way, a national civil rights group, sent a letter to Brumby urging the board not to adopt any Bible course based on work by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

Carol Shields, president of People for the American Way, said the group's curriculum follows a Christian interpretation of the Bible and tries to teach the Bible as a history textbook.

“The 'Methods of Presentation' state that the course is intended 'for students to gain an understanding of the history within the Bible,'” Shields wrote. “While the Bible is a document that exists in history, and many believe it to be true as a matter of their religious faith, it is, as the federal courts have recognized, first and foremost a book of religious proclamations and teachings. As such, and as the courts have held, it cannot be taught in public schools as though it were a history text. Indeed, much of the content of the Bible, such as divine creation, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus, is simply incapable of historical verification, and can only be accepted as a matter of religious faith and religious belief.”

Sheilds concluded that her group would not “hesitate to bring legal action to ensure that public education does not cross the line into Sunday school instruction.”

Elizabeth Ridenour, president of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, said that parts of her group's curriculum have been used for over 40 years in North Carolina school districts and that more than 100 school districts in 29 states have successfully implemented the courses. She said she was confident that Georgia's attorney general would approve the curriculum.

“I'm glad the board is being cautious,” Ridenour said. “The board will find our course meets the Supreme Court guidelines.”

In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that devotional Bible reading in the public schools violated the separation of church and state. The high court, however, noted that study of the Bible was constitutional when conducted “objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

Responding to People for the American Way's criticism of the Bible courses, Ridenour said she did not believe that organization could ever “be happy with any course that features just the Bible as history and literature.”

“While other religions are free to ask for courses in the public schools, we are just requesting that the Bible be taught as history and literature because the Bible serves as the basis of our founding documents in this country and kids have wondered what has been missing,” Ridenour said. “All the kids do is go through the Bible, like a book of Shakespeare, and then they are directed to form their own opinions.”

Haynes, however, told the Georgia Department of Education that the group's curriculum was also constitutionally suspect because it promotes a study of biblical history from one religious perspective — basically a Protestant evangelical reading of biblical history.

“A well-constructed Bible History elective would make use of secondary sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives,” Haynes wrote. “Students would learn how archeological and other historical evidence sheds light on the events discussed in the Bible. Students would also learn about the important religious claims made in the Bible, how different faiths have interpreted those claims, and how those claims have influenced our history and culture. In this proposed course, however, the outline, supplemental books, 'other resources,' and many other student activities fail to provide a variety of scholarly perspectives and offer essentially one reading of the Bible — a reading that derives from one religious perspective concerning Biblical history. In my view, teaching such a course in a public school would be unconstitutional.”

The Institute for First Amendment Studies, a nonprofit group that researches and writes about the religious right, has argued that Ridenour's group is promoting a theistic view of God disguised as a secular study.

“A look at the NCBCPS's board of directors and advisory committee may lead one to question whether this group sees the Bible as anything other than historical truth,” the Institute for First Amendment Studies reported last year. “Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus and the US Taxpayers' Party is a board member. Phillips is a student of R.J. Rushdoony, the father of Christian Reconstructionism — a movement that teaches that every aspect of society should be based upon and governed by the Bible.”