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Southern Baptists find themselves on opposite sides of ‘Bible class’ issue

ATLANTA (BP)–Lawmakers, educators and Southern Baptists turned out at the Georgia capitol Feb. 1 to show their support for proposed legislation to allow Bible elective classes in the state’s public school system. The legislation comes after the Georgia State Board of Education rejected a proposal to fund the Bible classes.

Rep. Tommy Smith, a Baptist legislator from south Georgia, introduced legislation that would provide for teaching the history of the Old Testament and New Testament as electives in the state’s high schools using only the King James Version of the Bible. The courses would be financed through state funding. House Bill 1200 would not require students to attend Bible classes, but would offer the constitutional right to students to enroll in a Bible course taught as history and literature.

More than 400 people attended the Feb. 1 news conference and rally sponsored Georgians for Bible Literacy, including 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.

Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, and James Merritt, pastor of First Baptist Church, Snellville, both have expressed support for the Smith bill. However, some Southern Baptists have expressed reservations, including Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Gerald Harris, immediate past president of the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Stanley’s involvement in the issue began last year when the Georgia Board of Education originally considered funding of the Bible course.

“I want to express my wholehearted support of allowing our high school students the opportunity to study the invaluable information of the Bible,” Stanley wrote in a letter to the Board of Education. “Not only will they acquire a greater understanding of history and culture of the nations and peoples contained therein, but they will be able to consider for themselves the principles which contributed to the success and happiness of biblical characters.”

Phil Griffin, pastor of the 1,300-member Bethlehem Baptist Church, said his church will back Smith’s house bill. “How in the world could it hurt our kids to teach them the Bible in school?” Griffin asked. “I believe that if the classes are set up and designed at the local level, they will be very successful.”

Merritt, a former chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, said he is hard-pressed to find a problem with the bill. “The Bible is a book that we believe is divinely inspired,” Merritt said. “It is the greatest-selling book in the world. If any other book was like that, it would be required reading.

“Beyond our belief that it was divinely inspired, the Bible is loaded with historical information and some of the most beautiful writing penned by man,” Merritt said.

Nancy Schaeffer, president of Family Concerns, Inc., saying she was disappointed by the state Board of Education’s original rejection of the Bible elective plan, noted, “It is very difficult for me to believe that in light of the tragic moral disintegration of our culture that our children face daily, that we have a major conflict in our state over funding of an elective high school Bible course and its content.”

An alternative bill, proposed by Rep. Jeanette Jamieson of Toccoa, Ga., would allow schools to provide Bible classes but would not allow subjects like creation, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ or miracles to be taught or discussed. Schaeffer denounced Jamieson’s bill as “counterfeit.”

“Since the Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, Declaration of Independence and our educational system, how can we submit ourselves and our children to Rep. Jamieson’s Bible bill that is void of the truth?” Schaeffer asked.

One of the key differences between the two bills is control, Schaeffer said. Under Smith’s plan, local school boards would determine how to implement the Bible courses.

While the proposal has the backing of some religious leaders, the ERLC’s Richard Land is opposed in general 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?’

“It is virtually impossible to teach a course about the Bible in a public school context — particularly when the students are minors — and be ‘objective, non-judgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair,'” Land wrote.

“Public school administrators would be far wiser to affirm students’ rights to express their religion in the schoolhouse and to guarantee that any student who desired to do so had the opportunity to share his or her faith perspective without fear of retribution or penalty,” Land said.

Harris said he also had some misgivings about the issue. “I have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered,” he said. “First, I don’t know who would be teaching the courses and I really don’t believe you can separate the supernatural and the miracles from the Bible.

“I would support voluntary prayer and Bible clubs and even free expression of religion, but I don’t know about this one [Bible electives]. It wouldn’t be too long before someone wanted to teach the Koran or the Book of Mormon,” Harris said.

Schaeffer, who served as a trustee on the ERLC from 1989-97, said she was not surprised by Land’s stance.

“Richard Land is 100 percent separation of church and state, so this comes as no surprise that he did not support putting an elective Bible course into the public high schools in Georgia,” Schaeffer said.

“When I was serving on the ERLC, which at that time was the Christian Life Commission, I introduced a resolution in support of Alabama Judge Roy Moore’s efforts to keep the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courtroom,” Schaeffer said. “It was a very heated meeting and the CLC ended up voting against the motion to support Judge Moore.”

Elizabeth Ridenour, president of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools which designed Georgia’s proposed Bible curriculum, said she doesn’t see how the material could be considered controversial. “This is a very non-threatening course and we’ve had nothing but compliments from teachers, pastors and students,” Ridenour said.

The NCBCP is a nonprofit, nondenominational council that provides Bible curriculum to 110 school systems in 29 states. Ridenour said the organization has received verbal commitments of support for Smith’s bill from 92 of the state’s 236 legislators.

“We use the Bible as a textbook and go through the entire book in the course of a year,” Ridenour said. In most schools, she said, a teacher with a background in the Bible usually teaches the class.

Ridenour said she supported Smith’s bill rather than the alternative proposal. “We favor it because it doesn’t have the 16 or so departures from the biblical text that Mrs. Jamieson’s bill has. We’re not in favor of censoring the Bible,” Ridenour said.

The curriculum is set up with safeguards, she added. “It’s taught in the way the courts have determined is legal and we don’t get into the interpretation of the Scriptures.”

Students’ questions about interpretation are often referred to ministers or rabbis, Ridenour also noted.

That issue is a sticking point for Land. “The overwhelming temptation of school districts and their administrators and attorneys will be to adopt a neutral model that will assume the Bible to be merely a book of historical significance and that will attempt to give ‘realistic’ explanations of the supernatural events in the Bible,” Land said. “Such a model would be neither ‘objective’ nor ‘neutral.'”

Ridenour said the course has become extremely popular. In one North Carolina school district, 500 students signed up for the class, she said. “And it’s not an easy class. This is a very thorough, well-planned course.”

The NCBCP’s curriculum is not free from controversy, though. The Florida Department of Education announced Jan. 31 an investigation of Bible history courses offered in 14 of Florida’s 67 school districts. One of those districts under investigation uses NCBCP material.

Ridenour confirmed the investigation and said her organization was working with the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel to study charges made by the People for the American Way that the classes have violated the U.S. Constitution.

According to a PFAW report released Jan. 13, up to 20 percent of Florida’s public schools are teaching the Bible unconstitutionally. “There is a right way — a constitutional way — to teach about the Bible in the public schools, and there is a wrong way,” said a PFAW spokesperson.

Courts have ruled that public schools cannot study the Bible as a devotion or advance a particular faith.

In his statement, Land said the limitations placed on Bible teaching in a public school setting raise several issues. “The U.S. Supreme Court itself has ruled that ‘Supernatural occurrences and divine action described in the Bible may not be taught as historical fact in a public school,'” he said. “How then do you approach such an astounding supernatural in a way that is ‘objective, non-judgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair?’ Those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection will not see an approach to teaching the Bible that challenges its truthfulness as either ‘objective’ or ‘neutral.’ And, those who believe the resurrection is a story or a myth will find any suggestions that it might be credible unacceptable in public schools. This ‘truth claim’ problem permeates the Gospels. Such claims do not lend themselves to ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ treatment.”

Stanley’s letter expressed concern over the moral condition of high school students as a reason for his support for Bible electives. “Our nation grieves over the consequences we are experiencing because of moral, mental and emotional corruption,” he said. “The overwhelming number of suicides reflect the hopelessness that exists in our nation. Our young people need to be aware that there are solid, trustworthy principles that have worked in the lives of individuals and groups since the beginning of time and can work in their lives as well.”

He continued: “The Bible offers a sense of self-worth, belonging, purpose and direction; we cannot afford to require our students to study certain theories and philosophies but deny them the right to this valuable source of information.”

Schaeffer said she believes the legislation will be approved by Georgia’s lawmakers. “I am very much aware that the Christian worldview is not taught to our students and our children today need access to the Bible taught, if nothing else as history or literature,” she said.

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes