Guidelines clear up use of Bible in schools

Sunday, November 14, 1999

After more than 150 years of “Bible wars” in public education, peace may finally be at hand. On November 11, a remarkable coalition of 20 religious and educational groups released The Bible and Public Schools, the first-ever consensus guidelines on the place of the Bible in the curriculum.

To appreciate the significance of this agreement, all we need do is recall our history. The fight over the Bible began almost as soon as the common schools opened their doors in the early 19th century. Catholics, Jews and others protested against a curriculum that imposed the Protestant interpretation of the Bible on all school children.

As the number of Roman Catholics in America increased, Protestants decided to eliminate “sectarian teaching” from public schools in order to prevent Catholicism from being taught in districts with Catholic majorities. The Protestant alternative was to have the Bible read in class each day “without comment.”

But that didn't work either. Protestants wouldn't allow the Catholic Bible to be used, and Catholics objected to the exclusive use of the Protestant Bible. The conflict over “whose Bible” would be read led to riots in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

We haven't done much better in the 20th century. Even though the Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored Bible reading in 1963, the question of how (or whether) to include the Bible in the curriculum has continued to divide Americans. Challenges to the constitutionality of Bible courses have generated recent lawsuits in Florida and Mississippi and sparked current disputes in Georgia and Tennessee.

That's why the new guidelines are an historic breakthrough — and long overdue. For the first time, many groups on both sides of the debate have agreed on how schools may teach about the Bible in history, literature and elective courses.

The Christian Legal Society and the National Association of Evangelicals helped to draft the guide, but so did the Anti-Defamation League and People for the American Way. The National School Boards Association, the National Education Association and other major educational groups are on the list of endorsers, along with the Council on Islamic Education, the Baptist Joint Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the National Council of Churches.

All of these groups join together to offer sound legal and educational guidance on how to teach about the Bible in ways that are academic, balanced, and fair under the First Amendment. Concise answers are given to such difficult questions as “How should teachers be prepared to teach about the Bible?” and “How should the curriculum address the variety of interpretations of the Bible?”

The guide also addresses the religious-liberty rights of students. For example, students may bring their Bibles to school, discuss their faith with other students, form Bible clubs in secondary schools and distribute religious literature subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.

The release of these guidelines is only the first step. The guide's publishers — the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association — are planning to follow up with new resources and educational opportunities for teachers on how to teach about the Bible in a public-school setting.

It's much too soon to say that the Bible wars in public schools are over. After all, some schools will ignore the guidelines, and other groups will have little interest in finding common ground. But this new agreement offers the best chance yet for finally putting an end to the longest-running battle in the history of public education.