Educators, theologians agree on Bible-teaching guidelines for public schools

Thursday, November 11, 1999

NEW YORK — Several religious and educational organizations have teamed up to create guidelines that will help public schools teach about the Bible without violating the First Amendment’s church-state separation.

The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, was released at a press conference held today by the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association after a “long and difficult process,” said Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center.

Charles Haynes ...
Charles Haynes and Kim Colby.

Haynes called the guide “an historic breakthrough,” and said, “For the first time, many groups on both sides have agreed on how to teach about the Bible” in schools.

The guide has been endorsed by 18 organizations, including the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Congress, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and the National Education Association.

Among the guidelines:

  • Any study of religion in a public school must be educational, not devotional.
  • A superintendent or school board should select teachers for a Bible class in the same way that it selects other teachers.
  • The Bible may be used as a primary text, but preferably not the only text for a course.
  • Supernatural occurrences and divine action described in the Bible may not be taught as historical fact.
  • Students should be exposed to a variety of religious and secular biblical interpretations and translations. Evidence outside of biblical literature may be used to address historical questions.

Chuck Stetson, vice chairman of the National Bible Association, echoed Haynes, saying, “this is an historic day when we can announce a broad consensus on teaching about the Bible in our public schools.”

Chuck Stetson...
Chuck Stetson

“Americans have all sorts of opinions on all sorts of issues,” Stetson said. “When you get to religion, there are a whole variety of issues, especially when you get to the Bible. We have the best of the American tradition here (with this guidebook),” Stetson said. He referred to the Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one — noting, “we’ve been able to forge a common approach to the various different approaches people have (to religion and the Bible) and one that respects each approach.”

Haynes said the release of the guide was only the first step, and that the suggestions needed to be followed up with courses and resources for teachers.

Warren Nord, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has instructed educators about teaching religion in the classroom, agreed. “There is a large agenda of work to be done … if the purpose of these guidelines is to be realized.

Warren Nord...
Warren Nord

“There’s a great deal of reform needed in schools of education and a dearth of source material, [but] this is an extraordinarily important first step in defining common ground that will allow us to move forward,” Nord added.

“The question of how, or if, to include the Bible in the curriculum has continued to divide Americans,” Haynes said. “It’s too soon to say if the Bible wars in public schools are over, [but] this offers the best chance yet for finally putting an end to the longest-running battle in the history of public education.”

Nord called the guide “the most promising articles of peace surrounding our cultural wars. Everyone has to have a voice and be taken seriously.”

Stetson said the guide provided three victories, one for education, one for democracy and one for the American public. “We have found common ground for common good,” he said.

Judith Schaeffe...
Judith Schaeffer

Judith Schaeffer, legal director of People for the American Way, said the guide would go a long way in solving constitutional problems for educators. “This guide identifies common legal errors and does an excellent job of helping public school educators chart a constitutional course when teaching about the Bible,” she said.

Kim Colby, special counsel for the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, agreed. She said religion was often ousted from schools because of fear — educators prefer to avoid controversy rather than attempt to stay within the constitutional guidelines and possibly offend someone or risk a lawsuit.

“We welcome this as a very helpful tool for helping school districts do the right thing,” Colby said. “Hopefully teaching the Bible will reverse the disdain in our culture against the Bible.”

“We are here today to urge public schools to do the right thing educationally for our kids — that’s the goal,” Haynes said, “and do the right thing for the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment is not meant to be hostile to religion; it works for everyone.”

Haynes said lots of schools today try to teach multiculturalism, but if they leave religion out, “[they]‘re cheating the kids,” he said. “It’s superficial, it’s meaningless — you’re leaving out what’s most important in these various cultures.”

In the past, public schools either imposed religion or ignored and left religion out of the lessons, Haynes said. “[We're offering] a third approach — we should treat people of all faiths, and of no faith, with fairness and respect … and make the First Amendment work for everyone.”