Panelists discourage teaching Bible as history

Monday, May 1, 2000

Judith Schaeffer...
Judith Schaeffer

ARLINGTON, Va. — Incorporating the Bible in public school curricula is important, but the material should never be taught from a historical perspective, a First Amendment lawyer says.

“The Bible history approach is a recipe for disaster,” said Judith Schaeffer, of the People for the American Way Foundation on April 28 at a
Freedom Forum World Center discussion on “The Bible in the Public School Curriculum: Constitutional and Legal Issues.”

“Academically, it’s too difficult (to teach from that angle), even when
you have the right people,” she said.

Panelist Charles Haynes, senior scholar of The Freedom Forum First
Amendment Center, said the issue of Bible historicity had been a major sticking point to the drafters of The Bible & Public Schools: A
First Amendment Guide,
a publication released by the First Amendment
Center and the National Bible Association last November.

Charles Haynes...
Charles Haynes

The question of whether to tackle the Bible from a historical or
literary vantage was “a struggle,” Haynes said. In fact, he added, the
language was such a sensitive issue that “it was almost a deal-breaker.”

Since the guide’s release, Schaeffer said, her organization has suggested to decision-makers in public schools not to use the historical approach because “it is fraught with problems.”

Some school districts have taught the Bible from a historical perspective, beginning with Genesis, she said, but students need to learn that this is not history — it’s what many people believe is history.

“It’s better educationally to encourage students to take a world religion course,” she added, so they can learn about the diversity of religion.

Another panel member, Kim Colby, special counsel for the Center for Law
and Religious Freedom, said the issue of religion in public schools had changed dramatically over the past decade. “The current state of things is much better,” she said. “We’re giving people all over the world solid working advice.”

Ten to 15 years ago, Colby said, many Christian parents and educators misunderstood the Supreme Court’s rulings and were afraid to including any religious instruction in public schools for fear of breaking the law.

With The Bible & Public Schools guidelines, “we’re surprising
educators and parents by saying there are ways we can teach the Bible in perfectly acceptable ways,” she said.

Kim Colby...
Kim Colby

“We’ve come a very long way in that respect.”

In addition, Colby said, decision-makers in public schools should be
able to implement religious instruction easily because Supreme Court judges
have been helpful in pointing out what is needed for the curricula to be

“Judges have been surprisingly lenient,” she said. “They have leaned over backwards to give guidance … which is unusual to see in the area of religious liberty.”

Schaeffer, however, said starting an effective program may be harder
than it seems.

“The rules and principles are clear, but applying them in a particular
context is hard to do,” she said. “The dearth of these cases doesn’t tell us much about the complexity of the cases.”

Responsible inclusion of religion in public school curricula
remains an important goal, Schaeffer said. “Silence (about a subject) indicates there’s something wrong.”