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Bible finds a place in schools

New state mandates and the rise of two national curricula inspire classes -- and the debate over how they're taught.

August 05, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

It looks like a scene out of Sunday school -- students in a southern Orange County classroom huddle over Bibles as teacher Ryan Cox guides them in analyzing the relationship between God and Satan.

"If God is supposedly omnipotent, if he exists and is all-powerful, why let the serpent in the Garden" of Eden? Cox asks. "Why let him hurt Job? Why let him tempt Jesus?"

But this lesson, at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, is one of the growing number of Bible classes being taught in public schools across the nation.

There is broad agreement across the social, political and religious spectrum, and most important the Supreme Court, that the Bible can be taught in public schools and that knowledge of the Bible is vital to students' understanding of literature and art, including "Moby-Dick," Michelangelo and "The Matrix."

But battles are raging in statehouses, schools and courtrooms over how to teach but not to preach.

As the number of these classes increases across the nation, civil libertarians, religious minorities and others fear that Bible lessons cloaked in the guise of academia may provide cover for proselytizing in public schools.

"Theoretically, it can be taught in an appropriate manner, but it takes the wisdom of Solomon to do it," said Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "You're balancing academic quality, constitutional concerns and community sensibilities."

Although exact numbers are unavailable, experts agree that the number of Bible classes in public schools is growing because of new state mandates, increased attention to religion in public life and the growing prominence of two national Bible curricula.

Texas is the epicenter of the Bible battles. Legislation the governor signed in June set standards for such courses and could require every school in the state to offer them. Meanwhile, a legal battle in Odessa could invalidate the most widely used Bible curriculum.

Elsewhere, public high schools in Georgia will start offering state-funded Bible electives this fall. And in Riverside County, Murrieta voted in April to offer such a course in the fall, and school trustees in Huntington Beach and East Palo Alto are being urged by parents or politicians to follow suit.

"A lot of people thought it was one heck of a good idea. Others thought we were Satan's spawn," said Paul Diffley, a Murrieta school board member.

Religion has a long, volatile history in the nation's public schools, even leading to killings and church burnings in Philadelphia in 1844 when Roman Catholics protested after their children were forced to read a Protestant translation of the Bible in school. Over the next century, religious education ebbed and flowed, with districts and states taking varying tacks in how they integrated the Bible into the school day.

In 1963, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared school-led Bible readings and prayer unconstitutional. Justice Tom C. Clark emphasized in the ruling that the court did not intend to discourage academic study of religion.

"It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the 1st Amendment," he wrote.

Despite that legal opinion, many public school officials have feared bringing the Bible into the classroom. A 2004 Gallup poll found just 8% of public school teens said their schools offered an elective Bible course.

High school English teachers and university professors say this lack of exposure to Bible tales has led to an education gap. A 2005 report by the Bible Literacy Project, which created a well-regarded Bible study course, found that although virtually all the teachers it surveyed said biblical knowledge was important to students' education, most thought few students had a command of the subject.

However, when these classes are taught, they can be fraught with problems. A 2006 study by Chancey, funded by the liberal Texas Freedom Network, which surveyed every Texas public high school's Bible classes, showed what can go wrong. Of the 25 districts offering the classes during the 2005-06 academic year, the study found, all but three had minimal academic value and were not taught objectively, teachers were largely unqualified, and some classes were taught by clergy.

"The vast majority of Texas Bible courses, despite their titles, do not teach about the Bible in the context of a history or literature class," according to the study. "Instead, the courses are explicitly devotional in nature and reflect an almost exclusively Christian perspective of the Bible. They assume that students are Christians, that Christian theological claims are true and that the Bible itself is divinely inspired -- all of which are inappropriate in a public school classroom."

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