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Land says Bible teaching guidelines ‘mixed blessing’

WASHINGTON (BP)–A decision by several religious and educational organizations to create guidelines that will help public schools teach about the Bible without violating church-state separation, is so much of a “mixed blessing” that Richard Land is unsure it is much of a blessing at all.
“I found myself asking the question when does a mixed blessing become so mixed it is no longer a blessing? I think it is very likely that more and more Baptists and Evangelicals in coming months and years will come to the conclusion that it is far too mixed to be a blessing,” said Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Developed by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association, “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide” was recently released in New York City.
The guide encourages public schools to offer the Bible as literature and allows educators to teach students about the Bible, as long as the miracles contained within it are not presented as historical facts.
The guide states that:
Any study of religion in public schools must be educational, not devotional; a superintendent or school board should select teachers for a Bible class in the same way it selects other teachers; the Bible may be used as a primary text, but should not be the only text; students should also be exposed to a variety of religious and secular biblical interpretations and translations. Other evidence outside of the Bible can be used to address historical questions.
The guide has been endorsed by 18 groups which represent a wide variety of political and religious stands, including People for the American Way, American Federation of Teachers, American Jewish Congress, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Christian Legal Society, Council of Islamic Education and the National Association of Evangelicals.
It is precisely the backing of the guide by some of those groups that has Land questioning its worth.
“If People for the American Way and the others are supporting it, that should make us very cautious,” Land said. Most of the groups supporting the guide are considered very liberal.
Even though he wonders about its overall value, Land said the guide is quite right in its interpretation of recent history of teaching religion in public schools.
“The document does critique, quite rightly, what it calls the two ‘failed models.’ One is the public school model, where the majority religion is ‘preferred in school practices and policies.’ The other, far more prevalent approach in recent decades, is the move to make public schools ‘religion-free zones,'” Land said.
“They are quite right that neither of those models work. Prior to the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court prayer decisions, we often were violating the constitutional rights of those who were not Christians by preferring the Christian faith in our public schools,” Land said.
“But far too often in the decades since, we have violated the free exercise right of people of faith by seeking to censor and suppress those students’ rights to express and exercise their personal faith while on public school property. I applaud the guide for rejecting both of these models and for seeking to construct a third model. I believe we need a different third model that is more in tune with both the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment,” he said.
The guide is correct in asserting that students should and do have the right to voluntary expression of their own personal faith, both individually and through the equal access act and that they have the right within ‘reasonable time, place and manner’ restrictions to personally distribute religious literature to their classmates on the same terms they are permitted to distribute other literature, Land said.
“The problem with their model is that it attempts to construct guidelines whereby courses about the Bible and religion may be taught in public schools,” Land said. “They point out that teaching about the Bible and religion in public schools, in order to be constitutional, must be ‘objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair.’
“I believe it is extremely difficult, probably impossible, to teach a course about the Bible in a public school context, particularly with minors who are there without parents or guardians, and be ‘objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair,'” Land said.
Instead, teachers and administrators can be expected to succumb to the overwhelming temptation to teach the Bible as just another book, albeit a historically important one, and to explain away the miraculous and supernatural aspects it contains, Land said.
“When they try to construct a model to teach about religion and about the Bible, they have opened a Pandora’s box of problems. I fear many Baptists, Evangelicals and others of serious religious faith are going to be very disturbed by the way many public schools will interpret the words ‘objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair.
“It would have been far better to have affirmed a model whereby students’ rights to express their religious convictions were affirmed and the public schools were called upon to accommodate that expression and make certain that everyone ‘plays fair’ but not recommend and construct a role for the public school to start teaching about religion and about the Bible,” Land said.
“A public university would have far more leeway in teaching a course about religion and about the Bible than would public schools, as universities teach adults, whereas in elementary and high school, you are mostly dealing with minors,” Land said.
But Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society, one of the guide’s supporters, said the guide could actually encourage more schools to use the Bible in their curriculums by clearly defining what is and what is not permitted.
Charles Stetson, vice chairman of the National Bible Association, said one recent study found that only about 8 percent of school districts in the nation offer religion-related courses. Most of those are located in the South and Southeast.
The guide is only the first step, in that the group releasing it hopes to also release courses and resources for teachers in the future.

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  • Daniel Walker Guido