What do the courts say about the Bible in the public-school curriculum?
The Supreme Court has held that public schools may teach students about the Bible as long as such teaching is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” The cases are Abington School Dist. v. Schempp (1963) and Stone v. Graham (1980).
The Court has also held, in McCollum v. Board of Education in 1948, that religious groups may not teach religious courses on school premises during the school day.
Guidelines produced by the U.S. Department of Education in 1995, “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” reiterate that public schools “may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture” (emphasis in original Aug. 10, 1995, letter by Sec. Richard Riley). In keeping with the First Amendment’s mandate of government neutrality toward religion, any study of religion in a public school must be educational, not devotional. This principle holds true whether teaching about the Bible occurs in literature, history or any other class and whether the course is required or an elective.
A relatively small number of lower court decisions have dealt directly with the constitutionality of Bible classes in public schools. 1 These rulings show that the constitutionality of such classes is highly dependent on such factors as how the class is taught, who teaches it, and which instructional materials and lessons are used.
How the class is taught: Any class about the Bible must be taught in an objective, academic manner. 2 The class should neither promote nor disparage religion, nor should it be taught from a particular sectarian point of view. 3
Who teaches the class: A superintendent or school board should select teachers for a class about the Bible in the same manner all other teachers are selected. 4 School districts should not delegate the employment of such teachers to an outside committee that selects teachers based upon their religious beliefs or perspectives. 5 Teachers should be selected based upon their academic qualifications, rather than their religious beliefs or nonbeliefs. 6 Teachers should not be disqualified, however, simply because they have received religious training. 7
Funding for an elective course in religion may be provided by outside sources as long as the funds are contributed with “no strings attached.” 8
Which instructional materials are used: Decisions concerning instructional materials, including which translation of the Bible may be used, should remain under the control of the board of education. 9 The Bible may be used as a primary text, although it probably should not be the only text for a course. 10 Schools should avoid the use of instructional materials and lessons that are of a devotional nature, such as those used in a Sunday school. Supernatural occurrences and divine action described in the Bible may not be taught as historical fact in a public school. 11 The historicity of many persons and events described in the Bible may or may not be confirmed by evidence outside of biblical literature.
1 See Hall v. Board of Commissioners of Conecuh County, 656 F.2d 999 (5th Cir. 1981); Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp.2d 1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998); Chandler v. James, 985 F. Supp. 1062 (M.D. Ala. 1997); Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 582 (N.D. Miss. 1996); Doe v. Human, 725 F. Supp. 1503 (W.D. Ark. 1989), aff’d without opinion, 923 F.2d 857 (8th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 922 (1991); Crockett v. Sorenson, 568 F. Supp. 1422 (W.D. Va. 1983); Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133 (E.D. Tenn. 1979), supp. op., 474 F. Supp. 525 (E.D. Tenn. 1979), supp. op., 497 F. Supp. 390 (E.D. Tenn. 1980); Vaughn v. Reed, 313 F. Supp. 431 (W.D. Va. 1970). Compare Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979) (holding unconstitutional a school course in which students participated in transcendental meditation ceremonies).
2 Schempp, 374 U.S. at 225; Graham, 449 U.S. at 42; Hall, 656 F.2d at 1002; Gibson, 1 F. Supp. 2d at 1432; Chandler, 985 F. Supp. at 1063; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 592; Human, 725 F. Supp. at 1508; Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1427; Wiley, 497 F. Supp. at 392, 394; Vaughn, 313 F. Supp. at 433; Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979) (holding unconstitutional a school course in which students participated in transcendental meditation ceremonies).
3 Wiley, 497 F. Supp. at 394. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433-34; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 595.
4 Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1431. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433; Vaughn, 313 F. Supp. at 434.
5 Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 593-594; Wiley, 468 F. Supp. at 152.
6 Wiley, 468 F. Supp. at 152.
7 Wiley, 497 F. Supp. at 393.
8 Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1431. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 598-599.
9 Crockett, 568 F. Supp. at 1431. See also Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1433.
10 Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 595 & n.9, 600. See also Hall, 656 F.2d at 1002-1003; Wiley, 468 F. Supp. at 151; Chandler, 985 F. Supp. at 1063.
11 Gibson, 1 F. Supp.2d at 1434; Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 596, 600; Wiley, 474 F. Supp. at 531.