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Land: Florida change shows problem with teaching Bible in public schools

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Florida Department of Education’s decision to approve Bible classes offered as literature instead of history demonstrates why Christians will not be satisfied with the teaching of the Old and New Testaments in public schools, said the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s church-state agency.

An appropriate alternative, said Richard Land, is released-time education, a constitutional approach that enables students to receive biblical training during the school day.

The revised guidelines recently released for Florida schools on teaching the Bible as an elective included the following changes — shifting the subject area from history to humanities and the course titles from Bible History: Old and New Testament to Introduction to the Bible I and II, as well as “[m]ore specific course content.” While the changes will not take effect until next fall, school districts are encouraged to make adjustments during the remainder of this school year, according to a release from the department.

The guidelines were released two months after People for the American Way, a liberal, public-policy organization in Washington, published a report critical of the Bible history curricula used in 14 school districts in Florida. PFAW charged that the schools were teaching the Bible in a way that is unconstitutional and not objective because it was done from a Christian perspective, in some cases using material more appropriate to Sunday school. PFAW recommended the Department of Education remove the Bible history courses from its approved list and allow the Bible to be taught as literature or as part of religion classes.

That report followed a 1999 statement that offered guidelines on teaching the Bible in public schools and was endorsed by a coalition of education and religious liberty organizations. Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed misgivings, however, about the guidelines, titled “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.” The guide said schools, in order to be constitutional, should teach about the Bible and religion in a manner that is “objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair.”

The Florida Department of Education’s decision “is what is going to happen anywhere that public school districts attempt to teach the Bible and pass constitutional muster under current law,” Land said. “As I have pointed out before, the ‘objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair’ standard is going to dictate ‘objective’ Bible study which is not objective.

“Most people who want these courses taught want the Bible at least taught as straightforward history, but, as the Florida case makes clear, even that is not going to be acceptable. As I predicted, those with the best of motives who have been pushing teaching the Bible in public schools are going to hate the results when the lawyers and school administrators get through with it.

“We should ask ourselves the question: Just exactly who is going to be comforted by a Bible study curriculum approved by People for the American Way and the Florida State [Univ.] religion department? Their definition of ‘objective’ is certainly going to be far different than that of most people of traditional faith, Protestant and Catholic.”

In announcing the changes, the state Department of Education said it consulted with the Florida State University department of religion and the school districts teaching Bible courses in making its revisions.

PFAW President Ralph Neas hailed the March 16 decision, calling it a “victory for Florida’s taxpayers and school children.”

“The ‘Bible History’ approach was hopelessly flawed and rightly abandoned,” Neas said in a written release. “This is an important rebuff to organizations that are pushing unconstitutional religious indoctrination in the nation’s public schools.”

There is a constitutional way to approach teaching the Bible, Land said.

“It would seem to me the best solution in those areas where people want an elective course on religion and the Bible in the public-school curriculum would be to have an elective course taught by ‘released time,’ and let a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim student be ‘released’ during that period to be instructed in his understanding of the Bible by a qualified, religious teacher from his faith perspective under a syllabus worked out jointly between representatives of that faith tradition and the public-school officials,” Land said.

“In that way, children are taught within their own faith perspective, and the government is accommodating the desire of parents and students to have a place for teaching about the Bible and religion within the public-school context that tramples no one’s constitutional rights — believers or nonbelievers.”

Released-time education enables students to receive religious instruction during the school day at a church building or other site off the public school campus. About 250,000 students in the United States attend released-time courses, according to estimates by released-time organizations.

Further information about released-time resources can be found on the Internet at the National Bible Association’s www.releasedtime.org website and the Bible Education in School Time Network’s www.mediassoc.com/bestnet/index.htm website.

In its 1995 guidelines on religious expression in public schools, the federal Department of Education said of released-time courses: “Subject to applicable state laws, schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools do not encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who do not attend.”

Organizations endorsing last year’s guidelines on teaching the Bible in public schools included PFAW, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, National Council of Churches, National Education Association, American Jewish Committee and Council on Islamic Education. While most of the supporters of the guidelines advocate strict separation between church and state, the Christian Legal Society and National Association of Evangelicals, both which reflect a more accommodationist view, also endorsed them.

The Florida action followed a failure in the Georgia legislature to approve Bible history courses in that state’s public schools. A bill permitting such classes died in a committee of the Georgia House of Representatives, with supporters saying that result was preferable to an alternative measure proposed by opponents. The substitute would have prevented teaching the Bible as error-free and would have prohibited instruction on the miracles recorded in it.