Georgia school officials decline Bible curriculum

Thursday, December 9, 1999

The Georgia State Board of Education decided today that the state would not pay for Bible courses that have been attacked as unconstitutional by a national civil rights group.

Board chairman Otis Brumby told the Associated Press that only a few school districts had shown interest in the course and that “the net effect of our approval would likely be minimal in terms of student enrollment but massive in terms of costly litigation.”

Board member J.T. Williams, a supporter of state funding of the Bible course, said he did not think the board’s action would end debate. He said he would like a public hearing to allow citizen input.

Judith Schaeffer of the liberal group People for the American Way lauded the board’s decision as “a victory for the First Amendment because the board refused to fund a course that was intended to promote the Christian faith.”

Earlier, the national civil rights group had raised the possibility of a legal challenge to dissuade Georgia lawmakers from financing the Bible history course. The group, based in Washingtion, D.C., said it opposed the proposed course for constitutional reasons.

Georgia’s state superintendent of schools proposed last summer that the state
pay for the creation of elective Bible classes based on a curriculum created by
the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, an evangelical group
based in North Carolina.

On Nov. 23, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker issued an official
opinion casting doubt on the curriculum outline’s constitutionality. “The course
outline does not show a chapter on the resurrection but there is a section
dealing with the parables of Jesus,” Baker wrote. “There is also a section in
the outline that deals with Genesis that could lend itself to a teaching of the
Christian beliefs regarding creation.”

In a lengthy analysis of the curriculum outline, Frances Paterson, a
professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia, said it included a Protestant
and fundamentalist approach to the Bible that would be better suited for use in
a church.

Also early last year, a federal judge in Florida ruled that the same Bible
curriculum could not be taught in a public school district because it covered
the description of miracles as if they were secular history. In Gibson v. Lee
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich said she “found it
difficult to conceive how the account of the resurrection or of miracles could
be taught as secular history.”

In a three-page letter sent late last week to the Board of Education and
Linda Schrenko, the state superintendent, People for the American Way urged
board members not to spend tax dollars implementing the curriculum.

“Because the curriculum presents a sectarian and religious approach to the
Bible rather than the objective and secular approach required by the
Constitution, we urge the board not to adopt any course that is based on it,”
wrote Carole Shields, the group’s president.

Along with the letter, Shields sent a copy The Freedom Forum First Amendment
Center’s booklet, The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment
, which was published early last month. The First Amendment Center
guide has been endorsed by an array of religious-liberty and educational groups
as a constitutional way for public school teachers to provide instruction about
the Bible.

“When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand
the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and
the practice of religion — which is unconstitutional — and teaching about
religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair
— which is constitutional,” the First Amendment guide states.

Shields called the proposed Georgia Bible curriculum unconstitutional.

“This of course does not mean that Georgia’s public schools may not teach
about the Bible,” she wrote. “To the contrary, and as the enclosed guide makes
clear, there are many lawful and educationally sound opportunities for such
instruction to occur. But if the particular courses under consideration are
taught, they will lead to needless, divisive, and costly litigation. Georgia’s
education dollars should be spent educating its students, not paying for

Robert George, an attorney for the National Council on Bible Curriculum in
Public Schools, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his group’s
Bible courses were not intended to promote Christianity but merely to help
students understand the religious book as they would other books in the Western

The Associated Press contributed to this story.