The Bible in the Public Schools

by: Katy Abel
This article explores the debate about the use of the Bible as an educational tool.
Table of contents

The Bible in the Public Schools

The Greatest Story Never School
It's the bestseller of all time, a literary classic of epic proportions. From Creationism to Christ, its influence is undeniable. Except, perhaps, in most public schools.

Does the Bible, found in 9 out of every 10 American homes, belong in the classroom? Can biblical references be made in an educational, not devotional way?

A surprisingly diverse coalition of religious and educational groups now believes the answer to those questions is "Yes."

What's billed as a "constitutional model" for using the Bible in school curricula has won the blessing of organizations often at loggerheads over issues that test the separation of church and state. Eighteen groups, including those representing major religious denominations and the nation's two largest teachers unions, have given a thumbs-up to The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide. The document, prepared by the National Bible Association and the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, is available for public review.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has said the Bible is worthy of study and can be taught objectively," says Chuck Stetson, vice chairman of the National Bible Association. "This is the first consensus document (on teaching about the Bible) in 160 years."

"We've seen the Bible taught the wrong way and it's divided communities, hurt students, and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars," says Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director for People for the American Way. "This guide will go a long way in helping schools teach the Bible lawfully - in courses such as literature, history and comparative religion - and steer clear of teaching matters of faith as historical fact or promoting one religious faith over another."}]

Teaching Without Preaching?
Since the Court's 1963 decision declaring prayer in public schools unconstitutional, many teachers have avoided the use or even mention of the Bible in classroom teaching. Nearly four decades later, there is a budding belief that the Bible can be used in secular studies without violating the U.S. Constitution.

"Let's approach it as we would any other text," Stetson argues. "Whether it's sacred or non-sacred, who cares? The key is respecting every single viewpoint."

Still the question: is that possible? Can individual educators, whose own life experiences and beliefs shape their approach to teaching, delve into the Book of Genesis with objectivity or neutrality? Organizations sponsoring the new Bible guide say in-service training for teachers is a must, "along the lines of what was done when feminist studies or Afro-American studies were introduced," says Stetson.

Though endorsers of the new guide hail from across the political spectrum, the issue of religious themes in schools is a key one for Republicans (and their traditional allies on the religious right). In the presidential race, George W. Bush advocates prayer in schools, and Steve Forbes supports the posting of the Ten Commandments in every classroom.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union declined comment on the new Bible teaching guide, noting that the document is now under legal review.}]

Parents Weigh In: Two Different Perspectives
One calls himself a "heathen."

The other goes to mass every Sunday.

Not surprisingly, they are two parents with strong views about the Bible.

"I'm very concerned about what happens on the front lines, in the classroom," says Marc B., an attorney and father of three who considers himself a secular Jew. "You can have blue ribbon committees up the wazoo talking about the benefits of teaching about the Bible, but the real action occurs in class when a kid says, 'This is what the priest said Sunday.' It's a recipe for doctrinal disaster."

While one dad worries about sectarian strife in a biblical discussion, another parent welcomes it.

"It can't do any harm," says Mary H., a family daycare provider whose own children were raised in the Catholic tradition. "It might give them a chance to be exposed to different religious beliefs. I think that's great."

"Public education is about creating a comfortable environment for learning for all Americans," argues Marc B. "When you introduce religion, you bring in potential pressures which might make the experience less than open."

Nonsense, Mary H. says, "Other groups have their say, like the gays and lesbians. As long as kids are comfortable with their own religion, how can it hurt?"