Civil rights group asks Florida governor to stop ‘unconstitutional’ Bible courses

Friday, January 14, 2000

In a voluminous report sent to education officials and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a national civil rights group has accused 14 school districts of unconstitutionally teaching the Bible.

The People for the American Way's 60-page report, released yesterday and titled The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History in Florida's Public Schools, says state education officials have for the past three years permitted high schools to teach two Bible history courses from Christian perspectives and to use the Bible as a secular history text book.

The Florida Legislature passed a law in 1996 that permitted school districts to offer “a secular program of education, including, but not limited to, an objective study of the Bible and of religion.” That law also states that districts can require “a brief period” for “silent prayer or meditation be set aside at the start of each school day.”

The PFAW's report accuses the following county school districts of unconstitutionally offering Bible courses: Clay, Columbia, Escambia, Gulf, Hillsborough, Indian River, Levy, Madison, Marion, Okaloosa, Polk, Santa Rosa, Taylor and Walton.

Yesterday, at the Florida Press Center in Tallahassee, People for the American Way President Ralph G. Neas called on Bush and state education officials to withdraw support for the courses and urged the 14 school districts to cease teaching the courses or face lawsuits.

“There is a right way — a constitutional way — to teach about the Bible in the public schools and there is a wrong way,” Neas said at the news conference. “Unfortunately, 14 Florida school districts are doing it the wrong way.”

Letters along with copies of the report were sent to Bush, to Tom Gallagher, the state's commissioner of education, and to all 14 district superintendents. The group also sent Gallagher the First Amendment Center's recent publication, The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.

The Florida “Department of Education should not permit the present unconstitutional situation to continue,” the group states in its letter to Gallagher. “We therefore call on the Department to step in and remove the 'Bible History' courses as currently configured from the state's course list.”

Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center's senior scholar, said that state officials should quickly try to remedy any improper methods used to teach the Bible courses.

“The report from People for the American Way is a disturbing reminder of how much work needs to be done to ensure that schools teach about religion, including the Bible, in ways that are both constitutional and educational,” Haynes said.

“The Florida State Department of Education should act immediately to review and, where necessary, revise Bible courses taught throughout the state. The new consensus guidelines found in 'The Bible and Public Schools,' published by the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association, will help the state to create new elective courses in the Bible that pass constitutional muster. Teachers must be given the right materials and proper training before teaching a Bible course in public schools.”

People for the American Way's study of the Florida districts' courses began in 1997, after the group sued the Lee County School District for offering Bible history courses. In 1998 a federal judge invalidated the district's Bible History II course because it taught New Testament stories, such as the resurrection, as secular history. The judge ruled that Bible History I, based on the Old Testament, could be taught, but only with strict monitoring of the class. During that litigation, People for the American Way obtained from the Florida Department of Education the names of the 14 school districts that were using the same curriculum and then requested from those districts all of their Bible course materials.

According to the group's study of the districts' materials, which included lesson plans, exams, reading lists, assignments and videos, the courses have been taught from a Christian perspective.

“For example, it is common in the instructional materials to find the story of Adam and Eve referred to as 'the Fall of Man,' and the serpent in that story referred to as 'Satan' — Christian interpretations of Genesis 3 that are not shared by other faiths,” the group's report states.

The report also says that many of the districts were using the Bible as a history textbook. Course materials at a Hillsborough high school claim that the Bible is “the most reliable source for history we have.” Escambia County Bible course materials describe Genesis 1-11 as the “Early history of man.”

“The course title itself, 'Bible History,' suggests from the outset to students that they will be learning what happened in the past — that is, learning history — by reading the Bible,” the report continues. “This is further underscored by the Florida Department of Education's placement of these courses in the 'Social Studies' group entitled 'World and Eastern Hemispheric Histories,' which also includes such high school courses as 'World History,' 'African History,' 'British History,' and 'European History.' “

The group's report also cites several Bible history exam questions that assume all students are Christians. A question from a Columbia High School exam asks students, “If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant (sic) Messiah, which book of the Gospels would you give him?” In Okaloosa County, a workbook question asks: “What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?”

JoAnn Carrin, deputy communications director for the state education commissioner, said that the Florida Department of Education had no authority to tell the school districts how to teach the courses.

“The courses are to be taught objectively and we believe the course descriptions are objective,” Carrin said. “But the way the courses are actually taught is a responsibility of the school district. The commissioner does want to look at this report and work with the districts.”

Ward Hurst, a Polk County education official, defended the Bible courses and said People for the American Way's report was not accurate. “This group apparently thinks they are taught from a Christian's point of view, but that is simply not true,” Hurst told the Tampa Tribune.

The Florida American Civil Liberties Union, which worked with People for the American Way in challenging the Bible courses in Lee County, said that it is also contemplating taking legal action against the 14 school districts.

“The report looks pretty thorough and it appears that these Bible courses are being taught in a similar fashion to those we challenged in Lee County,” said Larry Spalding, the ACLU of Florida's legislative counsel. “I would anticipate that our state legal panel will take this situation up fairly quickly, since it is not likely the governor or the education commissioner will respond. They will simply forward the complaints to the school districts and its unlikely they will take action.”

Spalding said the school districts appeared to be ignoring the state law, which he said called for comparative religion courses that “basically expose children to a wide variety of religious views without taking a position as to which is correct.”

“It appears that these courses are closer to Sunday school classes than legitimate comparative religion courses,” he said.