New guidelines to teach the Bible as literature in Florida high schools, issued after complaints that a "Bible History" course taught doctrine, are being called a major step in the religion-in-schools debate.
For some, it is a step forward in cultural education. Others call it a step backward that secularizes a book many parents consider the inspired word of God.
"By law, school districts have the right to teach the objective study of the Bible," said Florida Commissioner of Education Tom Gallagher.
His action, although prompted by complaints by activist groups, is the first major shift in a state's curriculum that conforms to "The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide."
The policy document was issued last year by the independent Freedom Forum and endorsed by a broad coalition of legal, religious and educational groups.
It states that teaching "about" the Bible is legal as history or literature but advises that a history approach risks confronting questions of the truth of Bible events such as Adam and Eve, the Exodus, the Resurrection and miracles.
Florida's curriculum guide on the Bible since 1992 had put that elective under high school history.
In January, People for the American Way, a liberal policy group, issued a report that 14 Florida school districts were teaching the Bible history course as conservative Protestant "indoctrination" rather than academic study."
"The `Bible as history' approach was hopelessly flawed and rightly abandoned," the group's president, Ralph G. Neas, said after yesterday's action by the education commissioner.
The new Florida guidelines, drafted in consultation with People for the American Way and the religion department at Florida State University, go into effect with the fall 2000 school year.
"Everyone was comfortable with the new course guidelines," said state education department spokesman Karen Chandler. "The choice of instruction materials is left up to each district."
She said the state will hold a "summer institute" for teachers who wish to prepare and will provide every district with the "First Amendment Guide" to teaching the Bible.
The guide recommends, for example, that students not have a Bible in class but use a book with Bible excerpts, because no Bible version should be taught to students as "normative," or the true Bible.
Liberal Protestants, evangelicals and …