Feature Pages 28-31
Bible Study in Public Schools
High schools are offering elective courses that adhere to a secular, literary approach, but too many still cross the line between academic enrichment and devotional instruction
BY PAUL RIEDE
Barbara Montesanto grew up Catholic, but when she began taking literature courses at San Diego State University, she found many allusions to the Bible were going straight over her head. The references and themes were everywhere — not just in Dante, Milton and Shakespeare, but also in Lawrence, Woolf and Hemingway.
“I felt hindered because of my lack of knowledge,” she says.
When the opportunity arose five years ago to teach a new Bible in Literature course at Vista Murrieta High School, a public school an hour north of San Diego, Montesanto, an English teacher there, jumped at it. Now she teaches two sections of the class. The King James Bible is the central text in the course, but she uses it strictly as a piece of literature, exploring its influence on a raft of other literary works through the ages.
“A lot of my students, even if they go to church, don’t really read the Bible,” she says. “This will really help them in college.”
Montesanto is among a growing number of teachers across the country who are comfortable using the Bible as a teaching tool. Public school courses involving study of the Bible have spread to at least 43 states, and at least seven state legislatures have approved laws encouraging some form of Bible study.
Crossing the Line
Montesanto’s strict adherence to a secular, literary approach is hardly universal. Experts who have studied the use of Bible courses say many of the classes they have seen clearly cross the line between academic enrichment and devotional instruction.
“It’s a lot of work to get it right — to have a good course,” says Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which works to protect both the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. “It is amazing in this area of law how often schools get it wrong.”
A 2006 study by the Texas Freedom Network, a religious and civil liberties advocacy organization in Austin, concluded that the vast majority of Bible courses taught in Texas public schools had little academic rigor and were “explicitly devotional in nature.” It said the classes were generally taught from a Protestant Christian perspective that communicated to students that the Bible was divinely inspired.
Mark Chancey, chair of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the report’s author, says much of what happens in those classes flies beneath the radar of not only state officials, but also local school leaders.
“I do think that district administrators and officials would be wise to more carefully monitor what’s going on,” he says.
Often, school boards are pressured by groups outside the school district — including state legislators and conservative Christian organizations — to push Bible classes. A law passed in Texas in 2007 requires that schools offer some kind of Bible study. Although it says teachers must be trained in how to teach such courses, no training funds have been allocated.
That puts a heavy burden on school districts to figure out how to offer instruction that satisfies external advocates while meeting academic — and constitutional — requirements.
It’s a prescription Chancey has called “a minefield without a map.”
Key Court Ruling
The Constitution does allow some religious expression in public schools — perhaps more than most people think. While classroom instruction or school-directed activities that favor one religion over another are clearly unconstitutional, students are allowed to quietly pursue their beliefs on their own by meeting voluntarily in religious clubs or saying grace before lunch, for example.
In a 1963 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring schools to have daily Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. But it did not ban the Bible from classrooms. In fact, the court noted “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
Even so, Peg Hill, director of the California Three Rs Project, a First Amendment and religious freedom education organization, says for a time after the 1963 ruling, many schools avoided any discussion of religion — to a fault. As she points out, religion often has been a key driver of historical events.
“Without it,” she quips, “the Pilgrims came to America for real estate.”
The overreaction led to a backlash, with conservative Christians arguing that the court, the American Civil Liberties Union and other church-state watchdogs had banished religion from the public square.
Hill and Chancey believe the backlash was fueled partly by a belief in “Christian Americanism” — the idea that America was founded to be a Christian nation.
The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which promotes school Bible study, says on its website that “the Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, our educational system and our entire history until the last 20 to 30 years.”
The group offers a Bible curriculum and a textbook, The Bible in History and Literature, published in 2007, that it says has been approved for use in 2,235 high schools in 38 states.
The organization (which did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article) insists its curriculum does not take a sectarian perspective. But Chancey, who reviewed the curriculum for the Texas Freedom Network in 2005, concluded it “improperly endorses the Bible as the ‘Word of God.’” After that report, the group revised the curriculum slightly, but Chancey and others still have major concerns with it.
While some school districts have ushered in Bible courses with little controversy, others have become mired in draining emotional battles. Chancey published a case study of one such district, the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas. After the school board voted to offer a Bible studies course, the community split over the curricula offered by two different organizations — the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and the Bible Literacy Project.
In 2005, with residents rallying and praying outside, the school board voted 4-2 to approve the NCBCPS curriculum, despite concerns it was too sectarian.
At the end of the 2006-07 school year, eight parents joined with a number of outside organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, to sue the district, saying the course promoted “a particular set of religious beliefs.” After three years of distractions and division, the district settled, agreeing to drop the curriculum and develop its own. With help from a scholar from Oklahoma State University, a school district committee developed a course that has satisfied both sides, district spokesman Mike Adkins says.
The Bible Literacy Project’s curriculum and textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, followed a pamphlet the organization published in 1999 in conjunction with the First Amendment Center. “The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide” established guidelines for how to teach about the Bible that have been endorsed by 21 national organizations, including AASA.
The BLP curriculum focuses on the Bible’s impact on culture, art and academics and is widely seen as more secular than that of the
National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. But while the curriculum has been highly praised, it also has drawn some criticism.
“It’s still a pretty sanitized look at the Bible,” says Chancey, who nonetheless calls the curriculum a good-faith effort. “It accentuates the positive, which is a good thing, but often by sidestepping entirely the negative.”
While emphasizing the impact of the Exodus story as a source of hope that motivated American abolitionists, for example, the textbook gives scant attention to other passages that support slavery, Chancey says.
In some districts, Bible courses have been quietly taught for years in ways that might not pass muster with those who insist on a painstakingly objective approach.
Steve Prince began teaching Bible study in Tennessee’s Knox County Schools in 1992. In 2009, he helped write the state’s Bible study curriculum standards.
Prince, a social studies teacher at Bearden High School, teaches Bible 1 and Bible 2 to about 140 students a year. The Bible is his only textbook, and he expects his students to know a slew of historical details as told in the Bible — the size of Noah’s ark and the names of Noah’s children, for instance.
In a hands-on exercise, he takes his students out to the football field and has them measure the size of the ark. He notes that the ark was just about as tall as the stadium. In another lesson, he has his students map out a scale model of the solar system to show them “how absolutely enormous Creation is.” When studying the New Testament, he brings in a medical text describing what happens to the body during crucifixion.
Prince says he has never had a complaint from a student, parent or administrator. He says his students — a handful of whom have been Jewish, Muslim or atheist — know he is a Christian. But he insists he does not address faith and is not promoting religion simply by teaching his students what is in the Bible, a book cherished by millions.
“It’s an elective,” he says. “If we were forcing them to take this course that would be a problem.”
Montesanto, the teacher at Vista Murrieta who’s taught a Bible in Literature elective for five years, says some colleagues and parents were skeptical when they found out she would be teaching a course in a public school where the top text on the syllabus was the Bible.
“A lot of people who didn’t know me or didn’t know about me thought, ‘Oh, I bet she is Christian and is going to teach them Christianity,’ ” she says.
But she took a strictly scholarly approach, even to the point of going back to her alma mater, San Diego State, and auditing a course on the same subject taught by now-retired comparative literature scholar Alfred Boe.
Montesanto uses the textbook produced by the Bible Literacy Project as a reference, but does not hew to its curriculum. Her students read not only passages from the Bible but literary works from Gilgamesh to Hamlet to Life of Pi.
By now, she says, most incoming students understand that the class is not about faith. If they don’t, she quickly sets them straight.
“If you want to have those discussions you can have them on your own anytime,” she tells them. “This is a literature class.”
Paul Riede is a staff writer with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org