As a document central to much of humanity and a monument of literature, the Bible's role in Western civilization has long been taught in higher education. In the grades leading up to college, however, the story has been quite different. The Bible was a book best left untouched.
The reason? Teachers and administrators wanted no part of bringing into the public-school curriculum anything that could spark battles over church/state separation, and possibly lawsuits by offended parents.
The National Bible Association and the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University have joined forces to try to change that. They just published "The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide." It's endorsed by 18 religious and educational groups ranging from the American Federation of Teachers to the American Jewish Committee to the National Association of Evangelicals.
The guide emphasizes that Supreme Court rulings since the 1960s have not banned the Bible from public classrooms. They have, however, drawn a line between instruction about the Bible - and religion in general - and state-sponsored instruction in religion.
Schools, the guide says, can become "places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect."
That ideal isn't easily attained. The guide's authors say teachers who teach about the Bible must be objective - free of a denominational agenda of their own. Easy to say; often difficult to implement.
Teachers should also have a background in the academic - as opposed to devotional - study of the Scriptures. Again, not easily done.
Which parts of the Bible should be taught as "history"? Which not? How to embrace different interpretations of biblical texts in order to be even-handed? In a religiously diverse society, sacred works other than the Judeo-Christian Scriptures can't be left out if the goal is to understand the importance of religion in human affairs.
Certainly a well-educated young person should have an opportunity to appreciate religion's broader role in our collective life, as well as the beauty of great religious literature. But a case can also be made for keeping religion out of the public-school curricula - for keeping the study and interpretation of sacred texts in the church and the home.
Solid thinking went into this guide (available online at www.teachaboutthebible.org). But those putting it forward have a significant task of persuasion ahead.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society