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Religion in the public schools, libraries, etc.

TYPICAL CONFLICTS ABOUT
RELIGIOUS TEACHING IN SCHOOLS

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The situation in Florida: 

The Florida legislature passed a law in 1996 which permitted Bible history classes to be taught in state public schools. In 1997, the school board of Lee County, FL decided to create a "Bible History" unit. They appointed a Bible Curriculum Committee and mandated them to develop curricula for two new courses: "Bible History: Old Testament" and "Bible History: New Testament." From the beginning, the committee was divided. Conservative members wanted to teach the type of Christian Bible course that is commonly seen in their Sunday schools - to teach conservative religious beliefs as truth. Religious liberals, and others, wanted to teach an objective course - information about religion. Against the recommendations of its lawyers, the school district adopted the program recommended by the conservative majority on its committee. This allegedly involved the adoption of two courses by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS): an Old Testament course with some adaptations, and the New Testament course exactly as produced by the NCBCPS. 1

The law firm of Steel, Hector & Davis, the People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) and the Florida American Civil Liberties Union sued the school district in federal court on behalf of some parents and citizens who objected to the curricula. The court issued an injunction which prohibited the teaching of the New Testament course, and ordered the strict monitoring of the Old Testament course. The school board decided to drop the NCBCPS-based curricula. They substituted a "neutral, academic curriculum that does not present the Bible as fact or from a sectarian perspective." The course is now taught in two sections, both based on a book, "An introduction to the Bible." 2

The People For the American Way then studied the "Bible History" courses that 14 other Florida school districts taught from the 1996-7 to the 1998-9 school years. They concluded that all 14 districts were violating the Constitution. Most courses:

bulletUsed the term "Old Testament", a uniquely Christian term, rather than the generic term "Hebrew Scriptures"  generally used by scholars.
bulletReferred to the events in the Garden of Eden as "The Fall of Man" -- a Christian concept not recognized by many other faith groups -- including some which base their beliefs on the Hebrew Scriptures. Some believe that Genesis teaches the rise of humanity, not its fall.
bulletThe serpent in Genesis was referred to as "Satan;" that is a conservative Christian interpretation, not shared by other faith groups.
bulletInterpreted much of the Hebrew Scriptures as prophecy concerning the future arrival of Jesus Christ. This again is a uniquely Christian concept. In one school district, the students were asked "What eight aspects of Christ's life are prophesied in Isaiah?
bulletTeach only one arrangement of the Ten Commandments; the students are not informed about the two other formats used by Christians and Jews.
bulletIgnore the seven additional books included in those versions of the Bible which are used by Roman Catholics and some Anglicans. These books are not considered part of the official canon by most Protestant denominations and are frequently referred to as the Apocrypha or as Intertestament Writings.
bulletRestrict the course to the King James Version.  The New American Bible, used by Roman Catholics, and the New World Translation, used by Jehovah's Witnesses, were not included.
bulletUsed only the Bible and secondary resources like Fundamentalist Christian handbooks as texts. No non-biblical sources of Middle-Eastern history were used. No books reflecting a liberal interpretation of the Bible were included.

Perhaps the most serious concerns with the courses were:

bulletThat only a single, typically conservative Protestant, interpretation of the Bible was taught. The students were not informed that there is a wide range of beliefs by different faith groups, depending largely upon their initial assumptions about the nature of the Bible itself.  
bulletThat the Bible was taught as actual history: the creation story, the flood, the Tower of Babel, the existence of Jesus since the beginning of time, the miracles attributed to Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, etc. were all presented as real, historical events. There is a wide diversity of belief about these events. They cannot be verified and believers must be accepted them on faith. "Teaching this biblical content as true in a public school improperly crosses the line of neutrality and objectivity by endorsing religion and inculcating students in religions beliefs."
bulletStudents are taught, in the Ten Commandments, that only God is to be worshiped and that one must rest on the weekly Sabbath, Saturday. They are taught that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus said that the devil is the father of the Jews, that "eight aspects of Christ's life are prophesied in Isaiah." The Bible is referred to as "our Bible"; God is described as "our Lord.3

The courses may well be ideal as a conservative Protestant Sunday school curriculum. However, they would fail miserably in a Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist or progressive Christian church school. Christianity is actually being taught as truth to the students - a specific wing of Christianity at that. As one court stated: "...to inculcate students...into the beliefs and moral code of fundamentalist Christianity [is] an admirable goal perhaps for some private citizens or for a private religious school, but a forbidden one for the government." 4

The PFAWF Florida Director urged the Florida Department of Education to remove the two courses "Bible History: Old Testament" and "Bible History: New Testament" in their present form from the state-approved course list. 

The PFAWF report 2 asks all of the Florida school districts involved to stop their current courses, and thus avoid being sued in court. The PFAWF also sent letters to the Superintendents of each of the 14 school districts, accompanied with copies of the report.

Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher has expressed concern about these courses. The department is gathering information about the courses, and about the way that they're taught. 5

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The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools:

The NCBCPS promotes Bible study in the U.S. public schools. They make a number of points in their web site: 1

bulletThey describe the main purpose of the Council is to make an elective course in Bible study available across the U.S. The course would "study the Bible as a foundation document of society." The NCBCPS president, Elizabeth Ridenour, believes that if more students study the Bible then "we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society and reclaim our families and children.
bullet"Historians say that religion has been the major motivating force in all of human history."
bulletThey describe the course objective is to help the student learn about the literary forms of the Bible, some Biblical individuals and symbols often referred to in the fine arts, the impact that the Bible has had on American society, the world views of America's founding fathers, the Middle East, and the importance of religion.
bulletThe courts do not require an absolute separation between church and state. The U.S. Constitution "mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions and forbids hostility toward any.
bulletStudents' right of religious freedom are violated when the Bible is removed from the public schools. 
bulletReference texts which do not mention religion give a warped view of history.
bulletThey offer a table of course contents on their web site. No detailed list of topics or a description of the approach that they take to teaching the Bible is posted. 
bulletThe textbook for the course is the King James Version of the Bible. A number of supplemental books are also recommended for the course. These include a number of Bible translations, and some additional books which are almost all from Zondervan Publishing House, a Christian publisher concentrating on fundamentalist and other evangelical beliefs. 6 One book attempts to harmonize conflicts among the various gospel descriptions of Jesus' statements and actions. Another attempts to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. Another gives a chronological chart of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, showing dates promoted by conservative Christian theologians but rejected by Jewish and liberal Christian theologians. No books representing the biblical beliefs of Abrahamic religions other than Christianity are included. (i.e. no books written from a Jewish, Muslim or Baha'i perspective). No texts representing a mainline or liberal interpretation of the Bible are included. 
bulletThey recommend a number of video tapes: "Ben Hur", "Charlton Heston presents the Bible," and "The Visual Bible" The latter portrays the books of Matthew and Acts, word-for-word from the conservative Christian NIV translation of the Bible.
bulletThey recommend a poster "Comparison of Life Origins" which compares evolution with creation science. It is prepared by a creation science group: Creation Evidences Museum from Glen Rose, TX. 

According to American Atheists, "Statements put out by the NCBCPS claim that between 45 and 300 school districts have adopted its program." However, the  NCBCPS allegedly refuses to give specific data. With some justification, they seem to fear that the school districts will come under legal attack.

The People for the American Way (PFAW) have expressed some concerns about the NCBCPS:

bulletTheir manual describes "the separation of church and state as a 'myth.' "
bulletThey refuse to tell the public how many school districts have adopted their curriculum.
bulletThey refuse to make their curriculum available to scholars and the media for review.
bulletThe NCBPCS board of directors and advisory board appears to be made up totally of conservative Christians.

In a letter to the Fort Smith, AK, public schools, the PFAW wrote:

"The NCBCPS curriculum ... presents the Bible not 'objectively' but from a Christian perspective (and, within Christianity, a Protestant perspective). And as the proposed course name confirms, it also presents the Bible 'as history,' as a record of the past. Indeed, according to a proponent of the adoption of this curriculum, the course would 'look at the Bible as a historical . . . record.' See 'Board Weighs Request to Teach Bible,' Times Record (Oct. 29, 2002). While the Bible is a document that exists in history, and many believe it to be true as a matter of their religious faith, it is, as the federal courts have recognized, first and foremost a book of religious proclamation and teachings. As such, and as the courts have held, it cannot be taught in a public school as though it were a history text. See, e.g., Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp. 2d 1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998); Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 582 (N.D. Miss. 1996). Indeed, much of the content of the Bible, such as divine creation, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus, is simply incapable of historical verification, and can only be accepted as a matter of religious faith and religious belief. Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 596. Nonetheless, the NCBCPS curriculum plainly presents the content of the Bible to students as a record of the past. 7

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Author's notes:

The author of this essay Emailed an information request to the NCBCPS but did not receive a response.

The author is frankly surprised by the courses offered by the NCBPCS. They appear to be clearly unconstitutional, because they teach religion (rather than teach about religion). Also, they do it only from a conservative Protestant Christian point of view. School boards which adopt their courses are laying themselves open to law suits that can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also risk the anger of liberal Christians and non-Christian parents and students in their communities.

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References:

  1. National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has a web site at: http://www.bibleinschools.org/  Phone: (336) 272-3799; Email bible1@gte.net; Postal address P.O. Box 9743, Greensboro, NC, 27429.
  2. James R. Beasley, et al., "An introduction to the Bible." Abingdon Press, (1991). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. "The good book taught wrong: 'Bible History' classes in Florida's public schools," at: http://www.pfaw.org/issues/liberty/florida-bible.pdf This is an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain a free software to read these files from Adobe Acrobat reader.
  4. Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 582, 596 [N.D. Miss. 1996). Quoting Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133,149 (E.D. Tenn. 1979])
  5. Robert Sanchez, "State investigating Bible history courses in 14 districts," Miami Herald, 2000-JAN-31, at: http://www.herald.com/  
  6. Zondervan's Publishing House's web site is at: http://www.zondervan.com/
  7. "Proposed NCBCPS Bible Course," People for the American Way, 2002-NOV-21, at: http://www.pfaw.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JAN-16
Latest update: 2006-OCT-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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