Texas School District Will Offer Bible Study Class
HOWARD BERKES, host:
Across the country, hundreds of public and private high schools are considering giving courses in Bible studies. Advocates say these classes will teach students about biblical text and their impact on world history and literature. But some of the materials available for instruction have raised questions about the real intent of the classes and whether they violate the constitutional separation of church and state. Janet Heimlich reports on how one school district in West Texas has decided to teach the course.
JANET HEIMLICH reporting:
In a recent Gallup Poll of high school students, fewer than one-third could say who posed that famous question: Am I my brother's keeper? For the record, it was Cain. The survey revealed that many young people don't know much at all about the Bible. That's why students like junior Laura Lipson(ph) of Odessa, Texas are happy her school will be teaching biblical studies.
Ms. LAURA LIPSON (High School Student): There are people out there who don't know stories like Noah and the ark or Moses or any of the stories that I've known all my life because of the family I grew up in.
HEIMLICH: Lipson, who was raised Baptist, says the course might be useful even for a fundamentalist like herself.
Ms. LIPSON: As a Christian, we believe that our great command from Jesus was to go and spread the good news. I think I could do that more effectively if I knew how other people viewed it.
HEIMLICH: School administrators, though, say the aim isn't to spread the gospel. According to Ian Roark, social studies coordinator for Ector County schools, the class will put the Bible in the context of world civilization.
Mr. IAN ROARK (Social Studies Coordinator, Ector County Schools): This course focuses on the culture and the history of the times in which the narratives themselves take place. So, for example, when you are learning about the Mosaic account of the Exodus, students will also be looking at Egyptian culture at the time, discussing who was Pharaoh at that time? Is there more than one possibility of who was Pharaoh at that time?
HEIMLICH: Roark insists that the class, which will debut in the fall, will not violate Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and religious instruction from public schools.
Mr. ROARK: This text will be discussed in a legal, non-devotional, nonsectarian academic setting.
HEIMLICH: But the curriculum Ector County has chosen has sparked debate. Students are to read the Bible as the textbook. Teachers will follow an instructional guide written by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. The guide focuses on retelling Bible stories using the King James translation of the Bible, which is read by many Protestants. This worried Ector County School Board member Floy Hinson, who voted against the curriculum.
Mr. FLOY HINSON (Member, Ector County School Board): I did not object to having a class teaching about the Bible, but I cautioned over and over, we have to be very sure that we do not teach a particular denomination. We have to keep that separation, and that just didn't fly. Some people seem to see that as being anti-religious.
HEIMLICH: Ector County will now allow students to use other translations of the Bible, but this wasn't the only objection to the teachers' guide the school district selected. For Steve Jenkins of the University of Texas in Odessa, the problems start with the book's cover.
Professor STEVE JENKINS (University of Texas): We've got the American flag draped in the background, the Declaration of Independence here, this very august kind of atmosphere like we're right at the desk of the framers, that they had the Bible in one hand and penning in the Declaration of Independence on the other. Even the image that we're sending to kids is, yes, our Constitution, our flag, and everything is wrapped in the Bible.
HEIMLICH: And Jenkins says the teachers guide says little about other ways the Bible has influenced history.
Prof. JENKINS: You don't find any references to the importance of spiritual and biblical origins of the movement to abolish slavery, and there's no discussion about how religion has led to warfare.
HEIMLICH: Steve Jenkins says Ector County had a better option for its Bible study course, a new textbook written by a group called the Bible Literacy Project. The photos and illustrations in that textbook show the Bible's mark on literature, art and history.
Prof. JENKINS: Even as early as page 10, you see juxtaposed Martin Luther King and the influence of the Bible on many of his speeches, and Abraham Lincoln.
HEIMLICH: And the textbook doesn't shy away from showing a good book in a negative light.
Prof. JENKINS: They're right up front to talk about the trials that came just over the translation of the Bible.
HEIMLICH: But Ector County rejected this textbook. As school board president Randy Rives put it...
Mr. RANDY RIVES (President, Ector County School Board): The textbook is the Bible, and that's what we voted on to teach, not a book about the Bible, but the Bible.
HEIMLICH: Rives is open about his own religious background. He says he's a proud Christian, but he insists Ector County teachers will not cross the line and proselytize.
Mr. RIVES: You know, you get me away from that high school, and I'm gonna try to convert every kid I can. But in the schools, no, I'm not for doing that, because I don't want somebody that has a different belief in our schools to be uncomfortable.
HEIMLICH: To make sure those students don't feel uncomfortable, the Texas district plans to train teachers on how to comply with court decisions on religion in public schools, and Ector County is confident the curriculum won't cause problems. The school board was reassured by the National Council on Bible Curriculum that its materials have been used across the country without provoking lawsuits. For NPR News, I'm Janet Heimlich.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.