Does 'Year of the Bible' cross the church/state line?
''Year of the Bible.'' Proclaimed by the President. Endorsed by Congress. Hailed by religious leaders and others across the land as an opportunity to focus on the inspiration and healing impact of the Scriptures.
Yet this recognition of the nation's diverse but historic spiritual underpinnings is sparking controversy - and not only from committed opponents of religion but also from members of the religious community and others who say they cherish the world's most widely read book and its precepts.
Those committed to the constitutional ''wall'' between church and state, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), are concerned that the President and Congress, while well intentioned, have intruded into the province of the religious community. They would have preferred that an alliance of church groups initiated and carried the ''1983 Year of Bible'' banner. But they are reluctant to take legal steps along these lines lest they be accused of being anti-Bible.
Others are not so hesitant. A group of 16 individuals in Los Angeles, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has gone to federal court to overturn the ''Year of the Bible'' proclamation. Among the participants are Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, Buddhists, humanists, and members of the Ethical Culture Society. Their rationales vary. But as a group they claim that such government action violates the First Amendment, which they say bans the establishment of religion by ''singling out the Bible from all other spiritual and religious teaching as the 'Word of God.' ''
ACLU lawyer Eve Triffo says the federal government's endorsement of the Old and New Testaments violates the views of many who accept other versions of the Scriptures or look to other books and means for spiritual inspiration. One of the litigants, a Presbyterian minister and professor of religion, insists that the presidential proclamation tends to undermine a scholarly examination of the Bible.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FRF) is taking an even harder line in federal court in an effort to get the ''Year of the Bible'' rendered legally null and void. FRF president Anne Gaylor says the government-sponsored event has a unique ''Christian'' flavor and is an affront to Muslims, Jews, atheists, and other Americans. The Justice Department disagrees and is seeking to get Gaylor v. Reagan thrown out of court. FRF is, by its own definition, made up of ''freethinkers'' - including atheists, agnostics, rationalists, secularists, and humanists. It is particularly opposed to Christian fundamentalism, which Mrs. Gaylor says is a strong impetus in ''Year of the Bible'' activities.
Meanwhile, AU - a staunch advocate of First Amendment ''separation'' principles - looks at the ''Year'' warily. Spokesman Joseph Conn says his group has not filed suit but sees this issue as ''clearly a matter of government intrusion into religious affairs.''
Mr. Conn asks: ''Why are politicians so arrogant that they assume they can do better than spiritual leaders can?''
AU's current issue of ''Church & State'' magazine cites a recent display devoted to the ''Year of the Bible'' at the National Religious Broadcasters' Convention in Washington, D.C. The display included a book that specifically attacks religious interpretations of the Bible that appear to be at odds with those favored by Protestant fundamentalists. The book carries a ''Bible-1983'' logo, giving it the appearance of government sponsorship, AU points out.
The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs takes a stance similar to AU's. Victor Tupitza, director of denominational relations, emphasizes that the ''aim is a good one.'' But he, too, opposes government sponsorship. He says that the ''Christian approach'' in the presidential proclamation constitutes an affront to non-Christians.
Ken Schested, who heads ''Seeds,'' a Southern Baptist antihunger project based in Atlanta, says the ''Year of the Bible'' controversy isn't the real issue. He says his group is using the present national focus on the Scriptures to alert people to the special needs of the poor and hungry. Among the group's biblical themes: ''For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land'' (Deut. 15: 11).
And the American Bible Society (ABS) - which last year issued more than 1.7 million Bibles in the US and 3 million copies of the New Testament - is also steering clear of the ''Year of the Bible'' debate.
''We welcome any effort to get the Bible out to people,'' says ABS's John MacDonald. ''If the government wants to distribute copies, it would fine with us.''
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Texas-based National Committee for the Year of Bible says his group is somewhat bewildered by objections to the celebration. ''The First Amendment prohibits 'establishment' of religion. But reading the Bible is not establishment of religion,'' says Glenn Jones, the committee's national director.
Mr. Jones, a retired Air Force colonel, says that President Reagan and Congress are ''encouraging what is good for the country. Whether you take the Bible as an inspired Word of God or a philosophy book, it's good for people.''
President Reagan, in proclaiming the ''Year'' said: ''Of the many influences that have shaped the United States of America into a distinctive nation and people, none may be said to be more fundamental and enduring than the Bible.'' The Reagan document was less specific than Congress's joint resolution, which refers to the Bible as the ''Word of God.''