Bible wars in public schools: No truce in sight

Sunday, October 12, 2003

What’s the most controversial book in public schools? If you guessed one of the Harry Potter series or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you’re wrong. The correct answer: the Bible.

J.K. Rowling and Mark Twain may appear on the annual “banned books” list published every fall by the American Library Association. But the conflict over the place of the Bible in schools is easily the longest-running fight in the history of public education.

The latest battles in the Bible wars involve students pushing for equal treatment of their Bible clubs – and parents and teachers arguing over the constitutionality of Bible courses. Just last week, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling in favor of a Bible club in Spanaway, Wash. And only last month, school officials in Moorpark, Calif., canceled a Bible elective after two weeks of classes.

Nothing divides Americans like the Bible. No sooner had “common schools” opened their doors in the 19th century than a bitter struggle broke out between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Bible would be read each morning. By the early 20th century, John Scopes was on trial in Tennessee for teaching a theory that the state had declared unbiblical. And now in the 21st century, school districts across the nation are plagued with lawsuits over Bible courses and clubs.

It’s unlikely that the students in Spanaway knew this history when they asked to form “World Changers” – a student-led Bible club. But they had probably heard about the Equal Access Act, a 1984 law protecting the right of students in secondary schools to form religious clubs, including Bible clubs, if the school allows other extracurricular student groups. Christian groups have been educating students about this law for years.

School officials were prepared to allow World Changers to meet on campus before and after school – but they would not give the club the same access and privileges as other student clubs. Since “approved” student clubs meet during instructional time and receive funds from school fund-raisers and events, school officials decided that religious clubs had to be treated differently to uphold church-state separation.

Although a federal judge sided with the school, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision and ruled that the Bible club had to be given the same status and benefits as other student-initiated clubs. (Yes, this is the same court that struck “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.) Last week the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in the Bible club case, Jacoby v. Prince, leaving the 9th Circuit’s ruling in place.

Now the Bible club can make announcements, put up posters, meet during the morning activities period and draw on the pool of funds for student activities on the same basis as all other student extracurricular groups.

What’s most troubling about this case is the use of school funds for evangelization in a public school. Giving World Changers access to school media and treating the club like other extracurricular clubs is the right thing to do – and what the Equal Access Act is all about. But should money from vending-machine sales and school events go to support religious activities? Since the Supreme Court didn’t take the case, the legal answer seems to be “yes,” at least in the 9th Circuit.

A better approach – one that upholds the First Amendment principle of “no establishment” – would be for administrators to stop funding all student-initiated extracurricular clubs. Use school funds only for curriculum-related clubs and let other clubs support themselves.

Bible courses are even more contentious than Bible clubs. Over the past decade, some evangelical groups have vigorously pushed for Bible electives in public schools across the country. There’s nothing unconstitutional about a Bible elective – as long as it’s objective, academic and includes a variety of perspectives. But here’s the issue: Many advocates of Bible courses want only their interpretation of the Bible taught. And that is unconstitutional.

The 24 students taking the Bible course at Moorpark High School got caught in the crossfire of the debate over how to teach “Bible history” in a public school. The course may have been fine (I haven’t seen it), but it was put into the curriculum without the public review and school board approval required of all new courses.

News reports suggest that the school district was wise to pull the course for further review. One student told the Ventura County Star: “Every five seconds the teacher was telling us the Bible would be used as a textbook, just like a history book would be used.” But that’s precisely the problem. The Bible is Scripture – sacred history for millions of Jews and Christians – but it can’t be treated like a history textbook in a public school.

Sorting out what is historical in the Bible is complicated and potentially controversial. Such a course would need to include non-biblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives. Unless schools carefully design the course (and find someone qualified to teach it), they’ll face endless legal challenges.

As the folks in Moorpark and Spanaway can now attest, anything having to do with “Bible and public schools” is bound to start a fight. That’s why the First Amendment Center keeps reprinting by the thousands copies of the pamphlet The Bible and Public Schools – consensus guidelines supported by a broad range of 18 religious and educational groups from the Christian Legal Society to People for the American Way.

Of course, guidelines alone, no matter how widely endorsed, aren’t likely to end the Bible wars anytime soon. Too many people are too deeply invested in keeping the fight alive. But a cease-fire that ends some of the confusion and conflict about the role of the Bible in schools would be good for public education – and for our nation.

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