All 14 public school districts in Florida that offer courses on the Bible are violating the U.S. Constitution by teaching from a religious perspective, a report released last week by the People For the American Way Foundation contends.
| “The Good Book Taught Wrong: ‘Bible History’ Classes in Florida’s Public Schools” is available online at http://www.pfaw.org/ |
florida-bible.pdf (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader) or by calling (800) 326-7329.
In its 54-page report, “The Good Book Taught Wrong: ‘Bible History’ Classes in Florida’s Public Schools,” the Washington-based liberal watchdog group uses the courses’ instructional materials and exams to make its case.
“There is a right way and a wrong way to teach the Bible,” said Lisa Versaci, the Florida director of the People For the American Way Foundation. “There is the legal issue, but more importantly the education issue. You have a group of kids being left out. There is proselytizing going on in the public schools.”
The foundation, which sued the Lee County school board in Fort Myers, Fla., last year over two proposed Bible courses, highlights five common ways it says the 14 districts are violating the law. According to the report, the Bible courses are framed and taught from Christian, usually Protestant, perspectives; the Bible is used as a history textbook; students are assumed to be Christian; the Bible is used to promote Christian faith formation and religious values; and Sunday school and other religious-training exercises are used to indoctrinate students in Bible content.
A Bible history class taught at Clay High School, for example, includes an exam question that PFAW officials regard as inappropriate for public school instruction. The true-or-false question asked students whether the first three of the Ten Commandments deal with “our relationship with God.”
“The teacher here is assuming ‘we’ have a relationship with God,” the report says, “bringing a religious perspective to the course, and also putting a student who does not believe in God in a very difficult position in terms of answering this question as ‘true’ or ‘false.’ ”
David Owens, the superintendent of the 28,000-student district and a former Clay High School principal, acknowledged the sensitive nature of teaching about the Bible in public schools, but disagreed with the conclusions drawn by the report.
“We don’t teach the Bible from a religious viewpoint or from a particular belief,” he said. “We have atheists in class, people from different faiths. This is an elective class where they choose to be here. I am very comfortable with how this is taught.”
Work on the report began after People For the American Way Foundation lawyers, a Florida law firm, and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Lee County school board in federal court over the board’s decision to adopt two Bible history courses that some residents viewed as promoting religion. The two sides reached a settlement when the board agreed to drop a controversial New Testament curriculum and to change the name of the remaining course from “Bible History” to “Introduction to the Bible.”
Foundation officials said last week that they hoped the report would spur changes in the Florida districts’ courses so that further legal action can be avoided.
Along with the report, PFAW officials sent a letter to Florida education officials requesting that they withdraw approval of the disputed Bible courses in their present form.
Karen Chandler, the communications director for the Florida Department of Education, said the state legislature allows objective instruction about religion and the Bible in public schools. “We have no authority over the districts’ curriculum or how it is taught,” she said. “Our responsibility is to have an objective course description. This is an issue this group may want to address at the local or legislative level.”
PFAW officials also sent letters to the superintendents of the 14 Florida districts asking them to make changes in the courses, as well as copies of “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide,” recently published by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association.
The publication, endorsed by a broad coalition of groups including the Christian Legal Society, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National School Boards Association, offers school leaders guidance on how to teach about the Bible in public schools without violating the Constitution. (“Groups Endorse Guidelines On Using the Bible in Instruction,” Nov. 17, 1999.)
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Schools’ Bible Courses ‘Taught Wrong,’ Report Says