Florida school board drops fight for embattled Bible course

Thursday, February 26, 1998

Only days after a Florida county school board decided to appeal a federal judge's ruling that barred a portion of a Bible course from being taught there, the board has decided to drop the appeal along with the constitutionally flawed curriculum.

The Lee County School Board for two years has struggled to implement a curriculum created by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in the public schools. In December, seven Ft. Myers residents, represented by American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the civil rights group People for the American Way, sued the school board in federal court claiming the curriculum was a blatant attempt to promote Christianity in the district's county schools and was therefore a violation of the separation of church and state.

The board responded by obtaining the legal services of the American Center for Law and Justice—a non-profit legal organization that defends religious liberty rights—to fight for the curriculum despite warnings by the county's attorney and First Amendment scholars that the Bible curriculum simply did not pass constitutional muster.

The school board on Feb. 25 dropped the North Carolina-based curriculum, changed the name of the course, acknowledged that teaching Bible stories as historical fact is unconstitutional, and agreed to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees that are in excess of $90,000.

In January, U.S. District Court Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich barred the second semester of the board's Bible History course, designed to represent New Testament stories as historical fact.

The first semester of the course, which centers on the Old Testament, was allowed to be taught because Kovachevich said the course had been cured of its constitutional problems by the board's attorneys. The judge, however, said the Old Testament course should be videotaped to ensure that the course is not being used to push Christianity on students. Bible History I is being taught at seven Lee County schools.

Bible History II, the New Testament portion, was found unconstitutional by the judge because it represents stories like the Resurrection as historical fact.

“This court too finds it difficult to conceive how the account of the Resurrection or of miracles could be taught as secular history,” Kovachevich concluded. The judge also criticized the school board for adopting the New Testament course. The board voted in October to adopt the New Testament curriculum against advice of its attorneys.

The board recently voted 4-1 to appeal Kovachevich's decision. David Cortman, associate counsel at the ACLJ, hailed the board's action, saying the New Testament curriculum “is constitutional.”

Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, is pleased the board decided to end the legal battle.

“We are quite pleased that the school board has agreed not to teach the course they have been pushing for years,” Mincberg said. “Instead officials are now proposing a bible course that is being taught at Stetson University called An Introduction to the Bible. The course does not teach the Bible stories has historical fact, but instead studies the Bible and its impact on history. Over two years ago we suggested to the school board that it adopt such a curriculum. We regret that the school board took two years, spent thousands of dollars, and required a court order before deciding to adopt the curriculum.”

Gene Kapp, a spokesman for the American Center for Law Justice, said the organization respects the decision by the school board but still believes the original curriculum is constitutional.

“Although our client, the school board, had initially decided to defend the curriculum, we respect the wishes of the board to go in a different direction,” Kapp said. “We were prepared to defend the curriculum and still believe that it is a constitutional way to teach the Bible in public schools.”

Kapp said he is not sure the settlement will dissuade other school districts from adopting the original curriculum.

“What will happen in the future is impossible to predict,” he said. “We expect to see more cases like this and we are committed to defending the constitutional rights of those school districts attempting to implement similar Bible curriculums.”

Kapp did not say why the school board decided to drop its legal battle.

Don Campbell, director of district operations for Lee County Schools, said that the board initially decided to seek an appeal because it was running out time to file for one. Therefore, Campbell said the board voted to file an appeal thereby saving an opportunity to fight for the curriculum in case a settlement could not be reached.

“The school board is pleased with the settlement and believes the settlement is a victory for Lee County students,” said Campbell.

Bob Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said school board officials in other states should take note of the settlement.

“There is a message in this settlement for school boards throughout Florida and the nation—if you adopt a curriculum that disguises Bible stories suitable for Sunday school as literal history, if you try to address moral and character development by simply proselytizing young people with sectarian religious views, if you dismiss the constitutional separation of church and state in the public schools as mere fiction of a tyrannical judiciary, you too will ineptly end up in court” Simon said in a statement issued shortly after the settlement.

The settlement is expected to be quickly approved by Kovachevich.