Groups Endorse Guidelines On Using the Bible in Instruction
A new guide written to help teachers and school administrators navigate the thorny legal terrain of teaching about the Bible in public schools has been endorsed by a broad coalition of education, religious, and civil liberties groups.
Released last week by the First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association, "The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide" is intended to ease the fears and misperceptions educators often have when it comes to dealing with religion and the Bible.
"Biblical literacy is clearly essential to a good education," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar of religious freedom at the First Amendment Center, based at Vanderbilt University. The center is run by the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based foundation that promotes free speech.
But Mr. Haynes added, "Many educators feel [the Bible] is a minefield, and there is a great deal of confusion and fear of controversy."A number of school districts across the country have faced legal challenges to courses dealing with the Bible.
Last year, the Lee County school board in Fort Myers, Fla., voted to offer high school Bible-history classes as an elective. A group of community residents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way then sued in federal court, claiming the courses promoted religion.
The two sides reached a settlement by agreeing to drop a controversial New Testament curriculum and to change the name of the course from "Bible History" to "Introduction to the Bible."
"We can put an end to these Bible wars," Mr. Haynes said. "These fights don’t always have to end up as lawsuits."
The 18 groups endorsing the guide include the American Federation of Teachers; the National Education Association; the National School Boards Association; the Anti-Defamation League, a New York City-based Jewish organization that monitors religious intolerance; the Christian Legal Society, an Annandale, Va.-based nondenominational association of lawyers and judges; and the People for the American Way Foundation, a civil liberties group in Washington.
"Everyone had the courage to put aside their differences and come to the negotiating table," said Charles Stetson, the vice chairman of the National Bible Association, a nonprofit, New York City group that promotes the objective study of the Bible in public schools.
Teaching about the Bible raises a number of difficult questions for school leaders, especially because the "Bible" means different things to different religions; Jews read one version, Protestants another, and Roman Catholics still another.
The 10-page booklet recommends that teachers use a biblical sourcebook that includes the key texts of each of the major Bibles or an anthology with different translations.
Among other recommendations:
•Teachers should use secondary sources that provide a discussion of the various religions and secular approaches to the Bible;
•School districts should offer in-service workshops for teachers who are teaching about the Bible in history and literature classes; and
•Elective history courses that focus on the Bible should include nonbiblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives.
Judith Schaeffer, the deputy legal director for the People for the American Way Foundation, said she sees the guide as useful to schools that are serious about staying within the U.S. Constitution.
"A school board that wants to take the Bible and use it to inculcate Christian faith is not going to be interested in what this guide has to say," Ms. Schaeffer said. "For a school board that is well-intentioned, this will be a great help."
One prominent group that did not endorse the guidelines is Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Steven Green, the general counsel for the Washington-based group, said the guide provides accurate information, but he worries that it will be narrowly interpreted by some.
"The orientation of this is so much geared to the teaching of the Christian Bible," Mr. Green said.
Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 7Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as Groups Endorse Guidelines On Using the Bible in Instruction