Florida developing constitutional Bible courses

Sunday, April 9, 2000

Good news from the front lines of the Bible wars in public schools. Florida's Commissioner of Education just released new guidelines that will transform how the state's schools develop and teach Bible electives.

This comes as welcome relief in a state torn apart by lawsuits and shouting matches over how the Bible should be taught in schools. You'll recall that two years ago a court found portions of a Bible course in Lee County, Fla., unconstitutional. And in January of this year, an investigative report by People for the American Way Foundation found evidence of unconstitutional Bible courses in 14 other Florida districts.

The revised course descriptions move Florida's Bible electives from history to the humanities. This gets away from the “Bible History” approach that was used by many districts to teach only a single religious view of the Bible. Now students will learn about biblical literature, the historical context of the biblical writings, the various understandings of the scriptures in Judaism and Christianity and the impact of the Bible on Western civilization.

Florida's new approach is consistent with the advice given in “The Bible and Public Schools,” a guide issued last December by the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association and endorsed by 18 other major religious and educational organizations.

Course descriptions, however, are only as good as their implementation in the classroom. Knowing this, the Florida Department of Education has promised technical assistance to schools, including new resource materials and a summer training institute for teachers.

But even if Florida's schools develop sound and constitutional Bible courses, not everyone will be satisfied.

Some parents who pushed for Bible courses in the first place may well change their minds once these new guidelines are in place. Teaching their kids about a variety of interpretations and translations of the Bible probably isn't what they had in mind.

Other parents may continue to raise questions about the propriety of offering a Bible course while ignoring other faith traditions. They have a point. That's why some school districts offering a Bible elective also offer an elective in world religions, or include study about the Bible in the context of courses that consider a variety of faiths.

These and other challenges and objections must be taken seriously. Nevertheless, there are compelling educational reasons for working hard to get this right. No book has been so influential in the history of the world as the Bible. Knowledge of biblical stories and concepts contributes to our understanding of literature, history, law, art and contemporary society.

Moreover, for millions of Americans the Bible continues to be the source of their deepest convictions and commitments. As one scholar put it: “If any book merits inclusion in the curriculum, it is the Bible.”

Florida's new guidelines are a major step in the right direction. With proper teacher training and sound classroom resources, Florida's electives in study about the Bible can become models for the rest of the nation.