Schools should be fair, objective in teaching Bible

Sunday, January 12, 1997

In my history class we were shown a video that presented the
Bible as historical fact (including the Genesis account). Is
that constitutional?

Ethan Jones, Tulsa

If the video is an academic discussion of what Jews and Christians
believe about the Bible, yes, its presentation was constitutional.
But if the video was a religious presentation designed to teach
the Bible as divine revelation, no, it was not appropriate for
the public-school classroom.

Under the First Amendment, public schools may teach about the
Bible as long as the presentation is fair and objective and part
of the study of literature or history. As Justice Jackson noted
in a 1948 Supreme court decision: “One can hardly respect
a system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant
of the currents of religious thought that have moved the world
society for … which he is being prepared.”

What the Supreme Court struck down in the 1960s was the devotional
use of the Bible by public school officials. The Court has made
clear that the government may neither inculcate nor denigrate
religion in the public schools. In other words, the public school
educates about the Bible; it does not promote or disparage the

It should be obvious that learning about the Bible is an important
part of any good education. Among other things, this book has
played a central role in the development of Western civilization.
From our legal system to much of our literature and art, biblical
literacy is essential for understanding our history and culture.

Teaching about the Bible, however, requires care and sensitivity.
While the Bible has much historical and literary significance,
it is primarily sacred history and sacred literature
to millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout the world.
Students need to be taught how the Bible is understood by people
in these differing faith traditions.

For example, students need
to study what the story of Genesis says and how it has been interpreted
in literature. But they must also be aware that people of various
faiths read the story as the revelation of divine action and purpose.

On the secondary level, it is possible to study the various ways
in which the Bible has been interpreted and used in history, literature,
and religious traditions. Such teaching about the Bible, as well
as about other scriptures considered sacred by the world's religions,
should be a part of all world history and literature courses.
In order to provide more in-depth study, some school districts
offer electives.

Such as electives are constitutional
as long as the approach is academic and the teacher is fully qualified
to teach the material fairly and objectively.

In the elementary grades, it is more difficult to teach about
the Bible. Young children may not be able to make distinctions
between “academic” and “devotional” uses of
the text, since children, particularly in the primary grades,
are just beginning to learn about their own faith. With this
caution in mind, however, it is appropriate to include stories
from biblical literature among those from various cultures and
traditions that children may read in the classroom. The teacher
must be prepared to teach biblical stories through attribution;
i.e., by reporting that “according to the Jewish tradition
…” or “many Christians believe that …”

Study of history, literature, art, drama, music would be inadequate
and incomplete without the inclusion of appropriate information
about the Bible. The question is not whether public schools should
be teaching the Bible; the question is how will it be done.