Georgia attorney general: Bible courses are constitutionally suspect

Wednesday, November 24, 1999

Thurbert E. Bak...
Thurbert E. Baker
Georgia's attorney general is warning state education officials that a proposed Bible curriculum for high schools throughout the state could be challenged and invalidated as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Earlier this year, Georgia state Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko urged the State Board of Education to pass a proposal for elective courses on the Bible to be taught in high schools throughout the state. The board decided to put off the vote until the attorney general issued his opinion.

The curriculum proposed by Schrenko includes three courses called “Scientific and Religious Perspectives of Life and Intelligence,” “History of the Old Testament” and “History of the New Testament.” The courses are similar to a curriculum created by an evangelical group based in North Carolina called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in the Public Schools. That group persuaded a public school district in Florida to adopt its curriculum, which was later barred from use in the schools by a federal judge.

Georgia Board of Education Chairman Otis A. Brumby asked the state attorney general to issue an opinion on the courses' constitutionality.

Yesterday, Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker concluded that he was unable to assure the board “that the Bible courses will survive judicial scrutiny” related to the federal and Georgia constitutions.

Citing an array of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, Baker wrote that Schrenko and other state educators would face a difficult time defending the Bible courses against legal challenges because the courses are simply a way to advance Christianity in the public schools. Baker noted in his 7-page opinion that despite “theoretical objectivity of the course outlines, no other religion's holy book is the subject of an approved course.”

Baker wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court concluded in 1963 that public schools could “offer secular courses in comparative religion or religious history without being in violation of the United States Constitution.” In Abington v. Schempp, however, the high court also stated that “any course limited to 'Bible Study' or 'Bible History' would most likely be declared by a reviewing court to have the furtherance of Christianity as its primary objective and hence be violative of the First Amendment.”

Although Schrenko claimed that the Bible courses were only designed to give students an understanding of the religious text's influence on literature and other art forms, Baker cited two sections of the courses' outline “that deal with Genesis that could lend itself to teaching of the Christian beliefs regarding creation.”

Last year when a federal judge in Florida invalidated a public school's plans to use a similar Bible curriculum, she noted course outlines included sections that presented the resurrection as secular history.

Baker concluded his First Amendment analysis of the Bible courses by noting that his office had opined before that “a course limited only to the history of the Bible is particularly susceptible to being found unconstitutional under federal constitutional precedent because it does not compare the beliefs of other religions with those of Christianity.”

Even if the Bible courses could be found constitutional under the First Amendment, Baker said the Georgia Constitution could nonetheless be cited to prevent their implementation or to halt their use.

A provision in the Georgia Constitution bars tax dollars from being used “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult, or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”

In 1990, Baker ruled that a Nativity scene on state Capitol grounds violated both the First Amendment and the Georgia Constitution “because a viewer could reasonably perceive that one particular religion has the support and approval of the state, and because state money was used to maintain the Capitol grounds.” Citing that ruling, Baker said the same observation could be made about the proposed Bible curriculum because “of the exclusivity of the courses, they could be viewed as endorsing Christianity, sending a message to nonadherents of Christianity that they are outsiders in the political community.”

Elliot Mincberg, executive vice president and legal director of People for the American Way, a nonprofit group that has urged the State Board of Education not to implement the Bible courses, lauded Baker's opinion.

“Courses that focus solely on the Bible or Bible as history are inherently likely to cross the constitutional line,” Mincberg said. “Such courses also short-change a student's education. The attorney general's advice should be looked at carefully and if it's respected, the board won't approve this curriculum.”

A call to Schrenko's office was not returned.