When is the Bible history and when is it religion? That is the question school officials in Fort Myers, Fla., are struggling to answer after a federal judge said public high school students here could study the Bible as a history textbook.
Some 153 students at seven high schools in Florida's Lee County began attending Old Testament history classes on Wednesday, a day after the judge's ruling. But the same judge blocked a similar course on the New Testament set to begin in March, questioning how the biblical account of Christ Jesus' resurrection and other "miracles" could be taught as secular history.
By one estimate, Bible classes are taught in 21 other states. But Fort Myers has become the site of a major battle over the separation of church and state.
"This is certainly the kind of case that could wind up at the Supreme Court. It is an area where we could use some guidance by the high court," says Joseph Conn, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way filed suit in federal court to block the classes in Lee County. They and other opponents of the Bible history classes say the curriculum is a thinly disguised effort by Christian school board members to indoctrinate teens with Christian theology.
Supporters of Bible study say an understanding of the book is essential for all literate, well-educated Americans. They deny any secret agenda to teach religion in public schools.
Legal experts say the central issue is not what is taught but how it is taught.
If the material were treated objectively in a course that focused on the literary importance of the Bible or through a comparative religion approach, critics of the current curriculum say they would have no problem. But teaching the Bible as history seems to support a particular religious perspective held by some Christians who believe as an article of faith that the Bible is literal history, they say.
Under long-established Supreme Court precedent, religious instruction in public schools violates the principle that government (including school boards) must remain neutral in all matters touching on religious faith. The principle is aimed at protecting religious freedom for all Americans, not just the beliefs of a Christian majority.
In an attempt to follow legal precedent, the Old Testament course curriculum in Fort Myers was approved only after it was purged of any discussion of topics deemed primarily of religious, rather than historic, import. For example Lee County students will learn nothing about creation or Adam and Eve.
THE proposed New Testament history course is even more problematic. US District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich issued an injunction blocking the New Testament course. In the ruling she stated that she "finds it difficult too conceive how the account of the resurrection or of miracles could be taught as secular history."
Both an attorney and a spokesman for the school district say the board has not yet decided whether to appeal the injunction or purge the New Testament course of the material at issue.
Supporters of Bible study in public schools charge the judge is supporting a form of government censorship of both the Old and New Testaments by choosing which portions of the work may be taught. "I do not believe it is appropriate to engage in censorship of that text," says Stephen Melchoir, an attorney for the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.
Mr. Melchoir and other critics charge that, rather than upholding the separation of church and state, the judge and some school officials are distorting and watering down one of the most significant books ever written.