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Proposed Bible-Studies Class Stirs Debate in Fla.

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School officials in Lee County, Fla., have come under fire for a plan to teach what has become the forbidden fruit in public school curricula: the Bible.

A plan to offer a Bible-studies course as a history elective in public high schools in the 46,000-student Gulf Coast district has sparked concerns about crossing the line between the separation of church and state. Although wholly endorsed by a majority on the five-member school board, some members of a committee charged with writing the Bible-studies curriculum say the course is inappropriate in public schools and is bound to draw legal challenges.

"I don't think this has the historical content that it should have," said Terry K. Wampler, a parent on the writing committee. "I think there is too much doctrine, too much emphasis on events of the Book, such as creationism. ... That's where you cross the line."

But school officials say the course, which already has drawn the interest of enough students for the district to offer it this fall in at least five of the county's eight high schools, will follow a purely historical framework. The course, they say, will give students valuable insight into the foundations of American government and some of the great ideas in political doctrines and modern literature.

"The Bible is an integral part of the origins of our country," said Lanny Moore Sr., a school board member. "I don't see how young people can understand why our country is what it is if they don't understand the Bible."

At Arm's Length

In its landmark 1963 decision in School District of Abington Township, Pa. v. Schempp, the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to require Bible reading or prayer in public schools. But the court said that "study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education," is acceptable.

Numerous court challenges over the years, and the threat of legal action by parents and special-interest groups, have led many districts to distance themselves from the issue.

Yet, Florida has a state curriculum for teaching the Old and New Testaments, and a handful of districts offer such courses. A number of other districts throughout the country, especially in the South, offer similar courses.

School officials in Lee County have become well-versed in the legal issues since the board approved the course last summer.

"We cannot assume that those accounts given in the Bible are historical or factual unless there are secondary sources that verify them," said Doug Whittaker, the district's executive director for curriculum and school improvement. But students can study the historical, social, and political effects the Bible has had on various cultures, he said. The curriculum does not include the books held sacred by non-Christians, such as the Koran or the Talmud.

Lee County officials have retained the St. Louis-based law firm of Peper, Martin, Jensen, Maichel, and Hetlage to help ensure that the curriculum stays within the boundaries of the law.

"They are attempting to present an objective, historical, academic course," said Melanie Gurley Keeney, a lawyer with the firm that consults with many districts on First Amendment issues. "It is not going to be a course that will proselytize."

'Can of Worms'

Despite those claims, Ms. Wampler and others are skeptical that the material can be taught without causing a legal backlash.

Mark A. Ehman, an adjunct professor at the Fort Myers, Fla., campus of Barry University who has taught the history of religion and the Bible for 35 years, also has his doubts. Because the course will focus on the Bible, and will not take a comparative look at other religions and religious doctrines, it may be promoting one theology over another, he said.

"It really is going to fall heavily on the teacher to be as open and objective as possible," said Mr. Ehman, who is also on the district's writing committee. Teaching units on creationism, the story of Noah and the Flood, and the life of Jesus will be particularly problematic, he said.

"They are going to be a real can of worms. In my opinion, they are being implied as fact," he said.

Mr. Whittaker disagrees, but he said he has seen few other issues ignite such intense public debate in his 24 years with the district.

Compounding the matter is the politics of board members, a majority of whom are conservatives. Mr. Moore's membership in the local chapter of the Christian Coalition has brought charges from critics that he is trying to promote the views of religious conservatives in the schoolscharges he calls outrageous.

Ms. Wampler, for one, predicts that the debate is not over. When the curriculum hits the classroom this fall, she believes, a trip to the courtroom won't be far behind.

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