The Bible in class: Is it ever legal?
It provided some of the foundations of America's laws and is referenced in literature from Dante to Dostoevsky. Bring it into the public schools, though, and the Bible can be problematic.Skip to next paragraph
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When parents in Frankenmuth, Mich., proposed a high school class about the Bible a year ago, the superintendent's first question was a natural one: Is it legal?
The group providing the curriculum said yes: The course was elective, treated the Bible as literature and history, and complied with a 1963 US Supreme Court ruling that said schools could teach about religion in a secular way.
The ACLU and People for the American Way said no: The curriculum in question promoted a specific Christian interpretation and looked at the Bible as a source of history, both things that crossed over a line into unacceptable territory.
"We talked to six different lawyers, and heard six different things," says Mike Murphy, superintendent of the Frankenmuth School District.
In the end - after a year of high interest and emotion on the part of some parents - Mr. Murphy recommended against the course and the school board seconded his decision earlier this month. His thinking, he says, was based not just on fear of a lawsuit, but on concerns that the class, as proposed, seemed simplistic. Besides, the school's social studies and English classes already taught religion's place in history and literature.
"It wasn't a vote against the Bible, it was a vote against this particular curriculum," says Murphy.
When it comes to religion, there's an odd patchwork of what's allowed and banned in schools around the country, and the questions raised in the Frankenmuth controversy are complex: Does separating church and state mean omitting religion from public schools entirely? If it is permissible to teach about religion, where is the line separating academics from indoctrination? Can young students understand the subtleties of faith versus intellectual inquiry in the same way adults or teenagers can? And even if a curriculum seems fine, what ensures that teachers won't proselytize?
"If we leave religion out completely, we cheat our students out of a good education, and we don't prepare them to live in a world in which religion is very important," says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va. "The question is, how do we do it properly?"
After periods in which religion was first a foundation of public schools, and then excluded entirely, the pendulum has started to swing to a middle ground, says Mr. Haynes.
He's worked to help craft guidelines acceptable to all. The key - whether the course is comparative religions or the Bible - is keeping scholarship at the heart of the curriculum, not favoring any one faith, and recognizing the difference between sacred history and actual history, he says.
"We have more consensus today than we've ever had on how to deal with religion in the public schools," says Haynes.
"The bad news is that carrying out that consensus is difficult given the long history [of controversy]."
Passionate views on both sides fuel disagreements, and the media often fan the flames. In one recent high-profile case, headlines proclaimed that the Cupertino Union School District in California had banned the Declaration of Independence because of religious references.