Florida issues new guidelines for using Bible in public schools

Thursday, April 6, 2000

The state’s top education official has announced new guidelines for using the Bible in public schools after accusations from a national civil rights group that at least 14 Florida school have unconstitutionally used the Bible as a history textbook.

In late January, a lengthy report by the Washington-based People for the American Way prompted the Florida Department of Education to investigate how the Bible was being used in school districts throughout the state. The group’s report, “The Good Book Taught Wrong,” charged that the Bible was showing up as a secular textbook in Bible history courses. In 1996, the Florida Legislature approved a bill that allowed the districts to offer “objective study of the Bible and religion.”

The group’s report cited examples from the various districts where biblical stories had been presented as historical events and courses had promoted Christianity.

The Santa Rosa County curriculum, for example, refers to the “Creation” and “Flood” as “historical events chronicled in the Old Testament.” Plant City High School in Hillsborough County calls the Bible “the most reliable source for history we have.” The stated course objective in Levy County schools is to help students “understand the basic historical facts of the Old Testament.” An exam question in Levy County asks students, “Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?”

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, urged Florida school officials to change course or face a lawsuit.

The report also spurred criticism from two state representatives. Democratic state Rep. Curt Levine derided the schools for allowing “anti-Semitic and proselytizing instructional materials” to be used in the courses.

Late last month, Florida Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher said the state’s guidelines on the Bible courses would be altered.

“By law, school districts have the right to teach the objective study of the Bible,” Gallagher said in a prepared statement. “The department has taken steps to ensure that right.”

Gallagher announced the course titles would now be called “Bible I and II,” and would be listed as humanities courses, not history. He also said course content and outcome requirements would be more clearly defined, that teachers would be provided a summer training institute and that department officials would provide “technical assistance” to the districts, including “on-site visits.”

Lisa Versaci, director of the People for the American Way’s Florida office, welcomed Gallagher’s action.

“The Department of Education has taken an important step,” Versaci said. “Now it’s up to the local school districts to follow that lead. The districts must completely change not only their curricula and the way they are teaching the courses, but also the materials used in them.”

Late last year, the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association issued a guide for teaching the Bible in public schools, which was endorsed by an array of groups including the American Jewish Congress, Christian Legal Society and People for the American Way.

“Parents need to be assured that the goals of the school in teaching about religion, including teaching about the Bible, are academic and not devotional, and that academic teaching about the Bible is not intended to either undermine or reinforce the beliefs of those who accept the Bible as sacred scripture or of those who do not,” the nine-page guide states. “Faith information is the responsibility of parents and religious communities, not the public schools.”

As noted in the guide, the U.S. Supreme Court has on several occasions said that public schools may include courses on the Bible as long as the courses are objective and do not endorse or advance a religion.

In 1963, the Supreme Court struck down in Abington School District v. Schempp a Pennsylvania law requiring that “At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day.”

Citing precedent, the Schempp majority concluded that the Pennsylvania law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Justice Thomas Clark, writing for the majority, concluded that state officials could not require public school students to engage in Christian worship. “The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind,” Clark wrote. “We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard.”

Nonetheless, Clark said: “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

Clark also wrote that: “In addition, it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”