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Objectionable alternative pushes supporters of Bible-teaching bill to postpone efforts

ATLANTA (BP)–A bill that would have allowed Bible history classes in Georgia’s public schools has died in a legislative committee, with supporters of the classes saying the bill’s death is much better than the alternative.

The Georgia House of Representatives’ Education Committee voted 9-5 to postpone a decision on the Bible history bill, thus derailing it for consideration during the 2000 Georgia General Assembly. Rep. DuBose Porter, the original bill’s co-sponsor, allowed it to die because of the controversy it had generated.

“To prevent a war on the floor [of the House] over who is holier than who, I think it would be wise to hold it,” Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think you’ll see it again.”

Opponents of the bill, led by Rep. Jeannette Jamison, wanted to offer a Bible history course that would not teach the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, prohibiting the teaching of the miracles, the virgin birth and the death of Jesus Christ — concepts which did not sit well with supporters of the original bill.

“It pretty much boiled down to our telling the Education Committee that if we could not get the course that we wanted for our children, then we didn’t have anything else to say,” said supporter Nancy Schaeffer.

Schaeffer, president of Family Concerns, Inc., is a former member of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It seems as though no matter what we did or the alternatives we offered, we were never going to get the Bible course we wanted,” she said.

And the alternative, Schaeffer said, was unacceptable. “That course denigrated the Bible. It taught that nothing in the Bible is true,” she said. “We felt that would be worse to teach them so we opted for no class at all.”

Georgia Baptists found themselves on both sides of the Bible history class issue. Charles Stanley, pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church, and James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church of Snellville, both expressed support for the original Bible history bill.

Stanley wrote a letter last year to the Georgia Board of Education expressing his support for “allowing our high school students the opportunity to study the invaluable information of the Bible.”

More than 400 people attended a Feb. 1 rally at the state capitol to show their support for Bible literacy. Among those in attendance were State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko; retired major league baseball player Brett Butler; Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr.; and pastors from across the state.

However, the group did not have the support of the ERLC. In general, ERLC President Richard Land said he was opposed to teaching the Bible in public schools.

“It is a dangerous move to place public schools in the business of teaching about religion and the Bible,” Land wrote in the winter 2000 issue of the ethics agency’s Light magazine. “We need to ask ourselves, `Do we really want the state to teach our children the Bible? Do we want the Bible marginalized as simply a fine history and literature text?'”

Schaeffer, who is a candidate for the Georgia Senate, said she will continue to push the issue next year. “We really believe strongly in this curriculum and in the importance of our students to know the Bible,” she said.

The Bible history curriculum has created controversy in the state of Florida, where the People for the American Way Foundation released a report charging that all 14 Florida districts offering Bible history courses violated the First Amendment.

Investigators found that the courses taught the Bible from a religious perspective and don’t provide the academic, objective instruction required in a public school setting.

Charles C. Haynes, of the First Amendment Center based in Nashville, Tenn., meanwhile, outlined a seven-step approach to have a successful Bible history curriculum in local schools in his Feb. 13 Finding Common Ground column:

— Appoint a task force of community members and teachers to research how best to design and implement an elective course focused on the Bible or other topics in religious studies;

— The task force studies the constitutional and educational guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools. (Two recently published consensus statements — “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” and “The Bible and Public Schools” — should be utilized, Haynes suggested);

— Task force members familiarize themselves with successful models of courses that have been used to teach about the Bible and other religious subjects in public schools without causing controversy;

— Task force members examine resources designed for teaching about biblical literature or world religions in a public school classroom;

— The task force considers pairing a Bible course with an elective on world religions or religion in America;

— The right teachers are selected. Teaching about the Bible or any religious scripture in a public school setting requires considerable preparation, Haynes wrote, and teachers who have had some background in the academic study of religion are the best candidates;

–The community is kept informed. Parents, religious leaders and others learn that electives in religious studies are designed to offer educational opportunities to students and not to promote any religious faith or group.

The process of creating the classes takes time and commitment, Haynes wrote. “Properly conceived and taught, elective courses in religious studies can do much to enhance the education of students in our public schools.”

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes