West Virginia public school board considers Bible course

Tuesday, August 11, 1998

A public school board in West Virginia wants to offer a Bible literature class, despite the objections of local ministers that religious literature should be taught in churches, not schools.

The course, which has not yet been titled, would be an elective and would focus solely on the Bible as literature and its impact on Western culture. Lyn Guy, superintendent of Monroe County schools, said she had hoped the class would have begun this fall at James Monroe High School.

The Monroe County School Board gave the go-ahead for the course at last week's public school board meeting. However, progress toward setting up the class has slowed since then. Guy now believes it may be a year before the class becomes a reality for county students.

The reason for the delay, in part, centers on objections by a group of area ministers, Guy said. Nonetheless, the school board, after hearing the ministers' concerns, “directed me to continue gathering information for the class,” she said.

The Rev. Lynwood Wells, an Episcopal priest and a member of the group opposing the proposed class, told the school board that the “Bible should be taught in the church and in the home.” Wells also said that a Bible class in school “could exclude a Jew or Muslim.”

An area Presbyterian minister also opposed offering a Bible class in a public school. The minister told the board that discussion of Scriptures would surely violate some students' First Amendment rights.

Guy, however, said that the ministers did not have information about the proposed course and that the school board wanted the class because a survey done by a high school student for a student newspaper revealed great interest in an elective Bible course.

Guy said she was interested in the course because “the Bible is a backbone of our culture.” She added that “students should not be missing out on the richness of the text,” and that not to “provide some instruction on the Bible is to eliminate a great bit of our culture.”

In 1948, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called the nation's public schools “a symbol of our secular unity” that “must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects.”

The recognition that the public schools must remain free from control of organized religion has made it tricky to use the Bible or any other sacred text as instructional material in public schools. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has said the Bible and other religious literature may be studied in a purely academic manner.

In 1963, the high court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp that so long as the study of the Bible did not amount to prayer or the advancement of religious beliefs, a teacher may discuss such materials in a secular course.

“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” Justice Tom Clark wrote for the majority in Abington. “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

Fitting the Bible into a secular course of study has not been the easiest of tasks for public school administrators.

An Alabama public school course called “Bible Literature” was invalidated in 1981 by a federal appeals court. In that situation the federal court noted that the class “consisted entirely of a Christian religious perspective and within that a fundamentalist and/or evangelical doctrine,” and therefore ran afoul of the separation of church and state.

Earlier this year, a federal court in Florida struck down a portion of a Bible history course slated for a public school district in Fort Myers.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich ruled in Gibson v. Lee County School Board that the course materials on the New Testament were unconstitutional. Specifically, the federal judge concluded that the course improperly presented New Testament stories such as the resurrection as history.