School Bible courses require planning

Sunday, February 13, 2000

It's easier to agree on the importance of studying about religion in the public schools than to do such studies right.

Florida's schools learned this lesson the hard way last month when People for the American Way Foundation released a report charging that all 14 of the Florida districts currently offering Bible history courses violate the First Amendment.

Investigators found that the courses teach the Bible from a religious perspective and don't provide the academic, objective instruction required in a public-school course.

Let's hope that Florida's schools take this opportunity to revise their Bible courses before lawsuits are filed. But if past history is any guide, many school leaders will take the path of least resistance and simply cancel the classes.

That would be bad news for public education. Avoiding religion is not only unfair and unjust — it cheats students out of a good education.

The right solution is to design elective courses that are constitutionally and educationally sound. This can be done, but it takes work.

Here is a step-by-step approach that has been successful in a number of school districts nationwide.

Step 1: The superintendent and school board appoint a task force of community members and teachers to research how best to design and implement an elective course focused on the Bible or other topics in religious studies. Various perspectives are represented at the table.

Step 2: The task force studies the constitutional and educational guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools. (Two recently published consensus statements — “A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” and “The Bible and Public Schools” — should be required reading at this point.)

Step 3: Task force members familiarize themselves with successful models of courses that have been used to teach about the Bible and other religious subjects in public schools without causing controversy. (Bible Literature courses are less complex and easier to teach than Bible History courses. The complicated debate among Christians and Jews about the historicity of the Bible is best left to college and seminary classrooms, where teachers and students are prepared to address such issues in-depth.)

Step 4: Task force members examine resources designed for teaching about biblical literature or world religions in a public-school classroom. In consultation with teachers and local scholars, they select materials that are academically sound, age-appropriate and characterized by a variety of perspectives.

Step 5: The task force considers pairing a Bible course with an elective on world religions or religion in America. This gives students an opportunity to learn about a variety of religions and conveys to students from faiths other than the biblical traditions that their religions also are worthy of study.

Step 6: The right teachers are selected. Teaching about the Bible or any religious scripture in a public-school setting requires considerable preparation, and teachers who have had some background in the academic study of religion are the best candidates. Teachers receive substantive in-service training from qualified scholars before they're allowed to teach a religious-studies elective.

Step 7: The community is kept informed. Parents, religious leaders and others learn that electives in religious studies are designed to offer educational opportunities to students and not to promote any religious faith or group.

This whole process takes time and commitment, but it's well worth the effort. Properly conceived and taught, elective courses in religious studies can do much to enhance the education of students in our public schools.