Florida Bible Class Fails Legal Test

Article excerpt

On February 25, 1998, seven plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the People for the American Way Foundation reached a settlement with the Lee County, Florida, Board of Education on a "Bible as History" course in the county's public high schools. Andrew H. Kayton, ACLU Florida Legal Director, called the settlement an important success for the ACLU, one that "could set an important precedent on the constitutional use of the Bible in U.S. public schools."

The controversy over teaching the Bible - as literature or as history, the Old and/or the New Testaments - began early in 1996 when a local volunteer for the North Carolina Council for Bible Curriculum suggested the "Bible as History" course to the Board of Education. At a six-hour meeting in March, dozens of speakers, including ministers, rabbis, and imams for local churches, synagogues, and mosques, objected strenuously to having the district offer such a course. The Board approved it, however, by a 4-1 margin. Specifics of the curriculum were to be worked out by a 15-person committee appointed primarily by the Board and, therefore, heavily weighted with Religious Right members.

Meetings of the curriculum committee-composed of clergy, parents, political activists, and Bible literalists and dominated by Bible supporters - were lengthy and acrimonious, producing personal attacks and ethnic slurs, such as the statement that those who opposed the course were "Jews and others who you wondered if they had any religion at all."

In the summer of 1997, after having met frequently for a year, the committee decided to adopt the course originally suggested, one developed by Elizabeth Ridenour, a former real-estate agent, and her Greensboro, North Carolina-based group, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

Once the curriculum had been adopted, Board Chairman Douglas Santini, who strongly supported the Bible class, accused Lee County Superintendent of Schools Bobbie D'Alessandro of dragging her feet in starting the course. Many citizens in the community rallied to D'Alessandro's support, but she finally acknowledged that the harassment and intimidation by Board members made it too stressful for her to continue; the Board bought out her contract in February 1997. Meanwhile, the Lee County School District attorney also resigned under pressure in January, after pointing out that the planned Bible course "plainly contravenes the Constitution." His stand was vindicated when the Board's new attorneys advised them that the Old Testament course could result in a successful legal challenge.

In December 1997, the ACLU filed suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of seven Lee County parents and other taxpayers, claiming the course as planned both Old and New Testament segments was unconstitutional because it was religious and not secular in nature, as defined by the 1963 Supreme Court ruling. The Board of Education was represented by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. …