Both sides emotional over Bible in school

Sunday, November 21, 1999

Want to know what people really think about the Bible and public schools? Tune in to talk radio. Callers aren't the least bit shy about telling you exactly where they stand and how wrong other people are.

I found this out last week after the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association released a new guide on how to treat the Bible in the school curriculum. As the lead drafter of the guidelines, I was invited to field questions on talk shows throughout the nation.

Few callers expressed much interest in what the guide actually says. Or even in the fact that it is endorsed by everyone from the Christian Legal Society to People for the American Way.

Instead, callers wanted to argue for and against the Bible itself.

The majority expressed anger that the Bible has been “kicked out” of classrooms. They're convinced that everything wrong with our society — moral decline, crime, drug use — is linked to Supreme Court rulings against state-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools. They want the Bible back in schools, but only if it's taught their way.

On the other side, a vocal minority was equally hostile toward any attempt to “find common ground” on religion in the classroom. These folks see our latest effort to explain how to teach about the Bible — no matter how carefully worded to meet First Amendment requirements — as a Trojan horse allowing “religious fanatics” to put religion back in the schools.

Both sides are wrong (not to mention unjust and unconstitutional). If we're ever going to get beyond lawsuits and shouting matches on the Bible, schools must chart a constitutional middle course between those who want to impose the Bible (or their interpretation of it) in public schools and those who want to keep the Bible out of schools altogether. That means teaching about the Bible fairly and objectively and protecting the rights of students to express their faith.

Are callers on talk radio shows an accurate reflection of what most Americans think? Let's hope not. But the people I heard from last week represent the loudest voices in the debate and are thus a force to be reckoned with in local school districts. Fear of stirring up this argument explains why many administrators do everything possible to avoid dealing with religious issues.

Schools are learning, however, that avoidance doesn't work; it just creates more anger. The only long-term solution is for administrators and school boards to be pro-active, to find common ground on these issues before the next conflict erupts.

Help is available. In addition to this Bible guide, we now have agreements on religious holidays, equal access, partnerships between faith communities and public schools and other hot-button issues.

Consensus guidelines such as these, supported by national organizations on both sides of the issues, are an essential starting point for finding common ground in every school district. Beleaguered educators and school board members urgently need a constitutional “safe harbor” for developing policies and practices that work in everyone's best interest.

Keep in mind, however, that guidelines are only as good as their implementation. Without in-service training for teachers and administrators, even the best guidelines can do more harm than good.

Getting all of this right in schools is no easy task. As I discovered this week, the loudest and most extreme voices still dominate the debate — at least on talk radio. But thanks to the enduring strength of the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment, other voices, voices of reason and civility, will ultimately prevail.