School Bible Battle Ends, First Amendment Wins

charles c. haynesInside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Unconstitutional Bible classes have been popping up in public schools all over America in recent years — and most of them go unchallenged.

But that may be about to change.

On March 5, a West Texas School district agreed to stop teaching a Bible elective that critics charge is devotional, not academic.

The agreement ends a lawsuit brought last May by the American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the American Way Foundation on behalf of eight parents in Odessa, Texas, where the course is currently taught in two high schools.

According to the terms of the settlement, the Ector County Independent School District (where Odessa is located) will appoint a committee of educators to create a new Bible elective that conforms to constitutional and academic standards for teaching about the Bible in public schools.

The demise of the Odessa course is good news for the First Amendment, but bad news for advocates of a Bible curriculum promoted by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools — the material adopted by the Ector County district.

A favorite cause of some conservative Christian advocacy groups, the National Council claims that its materials are being taught in 430 school districts in 37 states. That’s an unverifiable statistic because the council won’t tell you where the schools are located.

Leading biblical scholars and legal experts have strongly criticized the National Council’s material as educationally unsound and constitutionally impermissible for use in public schools. According to critics, the curriculum promotes an evangelical Protestant interpretation of the scriptures, ignoring Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant and other perspectives — not to mention contemporary biblical scholarship.

Despite these red flags, school boards like the one in Ector County still decide to adopt the National Council’s curriculum — either because they don’t know any better or because they want a course that reflects their own convictions about the Bible.

Now that the National Council material is off the table, Ector County school officials have an opportunity to get it right by creating an objective Bible elective that exposes students to a variety of interpretations and translation — and uses secondary sources that are based on good scholarship. Most important, they can get it right by selecting teachers with the academic competence to teach accurately and fairly about the Bible in a public school.

Whether or not Ector County is up to this challenge remains to be seen. If the school board members can’t have a Bible course that reflects their religious faith, then they may decide not to have one at all. Given their apparent disdain for the First Amendment, that might be the best end to this story.

Although the legal settlement in Ector County doesn’t have the impact of a court decision, it should slow the spread of the National Council’s curriculum. The agreement to jettison the course sends a clear message to school boards across the nation: Think very carefully before adopting constitutionally suspect curricular materials for use in a Bible elective.

Some people, however, won’t get the message because they don’t want to hear it. They’ll keep pushing a religious agenda in public schools — and defenders of the First Amendment will keep pushing back.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].