A high school course that seeks to teach the Bible as history has set the stage in Fort Meyers, Fla., for what looks to be the nation's next legal showdown over the place of religion in public schools.
Supporters say the subject matter will be taught in a secular manner and that enrollment is voluntary. Opponents say unless changes are made, the courses will violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
"To use the Bible as a text and say this is how history unfolded is not history, it is a religious interpretation of history," says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
The classes come at a time of growing interest - and controversy - over the study of the Scripture in schools. From Utah to North Carolina, students are enrolling in courses that seek to tell the past through the Bible.
In some cases, proponents are trying to circumvent constitutional problems by instructing teachers how to teach - not preach - religion. In other cases - particularly when the curriculum is more overtly religious - they are holding study groups off campus to avoid disputes.
But Fort Meyer's curriculum, which is already used in 22 states, will be taught in the schools - and thus is becoming a test case of where the law stands on mixing the study of Jeremiah with gerunds.
Both Old and New Testament courses are to be offered as electives in January at all eight high schools in the Lee County School District. The school board made the decision last week, but some critics say they may seek an injunction in federal court to block the classes.
John Dowless, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, says the school board is merely seeking to offer the option to those students who want to study the Bible at school. "This is a curriculum that is an elective. If students want to take it they can, if they don't want to they don't have to," he says. "The Bible is the No. 1. best-selling book in the history of the world."
The courses were developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a nonprofit group based in Greensboro, N.C.
"The Bible is history and literature," says Elizabeth Ridenour, who heads the council. "Most of the founding documents of our country were based on the Bible. Without a working knowledge of the Bible, students couldn't even understand the basis on which our Constitution was founded."
Ms. Ridenour adds, "You don't get that kind of information in a Sunday school class."
Opponents say that if the classes are conducted as planned, they will violate US Supreme Court rulings that prohibit the use of public funds to promote one religious view at the expense of others. They see the courses as a kind of religious minefield that is bound to offend someone's beliefs.
For example, should Adam and Eve be portrayed in the same historical terms as George and Martha Washington? The answer can be a reflection of religious belief.
Some fundamentalist Christians believe that everything written in the Bible is the literal truth - that everything portrayed actually happened. They view the Bible as the ultimate history book. Other religions place more importance on the Bible as a sacred source of inspiration, rather than as a literal blueprint of history.
Ridenour says the sample Bible curriculum she developed four years ago is currently being used in 300 districts nationwide. "It meets all the Supreme Court guidelines," she says.
Ridenour says there is no hidden agenda in her curriculum to inject a little moral education into public school systems. "We are teaching this as history and literature. The children are to draw their own conclusions," she says.
"There is no problem teaching public school students about the Bible, so long as that is done objectively as part of a secular program of education," says Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director at the liberal advocacy group People for The American Way. "The problem here is that the contents of the Bible are being taken as true, which is a religious belief, not proper historical teaching," she says.
Lee County faced this issue head-on, appointing a committee to review and, if necessary, revise the curriculum to weed out controversial teaching.
The committee decided to drop the story of Adam and Eve from the class. It also considered leaving out instruction about Jesus' resurrection. The debate became so heated that the committee disbanded, unable to agree on what should be included or excluded from the classes.
Most educators agree knowledge of the Bible is essential for any literate person. But the difficulty is finding a way to teach about the Bible without short-changing or offending religious views of the book.
Mr. Haynes says one answer is to teach the Bible as literature, not history. "If you take the literary approach you can teach the stories of the Bible and achieve biblical literacy without getting too deeply into the theological conflict over what is historical and what is not historical," he says.