Like prayer in the schools and the Ten Commandments in courthouses, teaching about the Bible in public classrooms has long been contentious. Some people question whether it is legal. Many educators worry they might be faced with lawsuits.
And American students, it seems, end up the losers. Without academic knowledge of the Bible and its influence, many teachers say, pupils can't understand their own literary, artistic, and cultural heritage. In a survey last spring, 90 percent of leading English teachers said biblical knowledge was crucial to a good education. Yet a Gallup poll found that only 8 percent of public- school teens said their school offered an elective course on the Bible.
For school districts, the difficulty lies in agreeing on what will pass constitutional muster, and then actually having the materials to teach it appropriately.
Help may be on the way. The Bible Literacy Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in Fairfax, Va., has spent five years developing the first high school text on the Bible in 30 years. The project involved scholars and reviewers from all major Jewish and Christian traditions.
"The Bible and Its Influence," released last week in Washington, is designed to meet constitutional standards and to convey the Scriptures' broad influence on Western civilization. Covering Old and New Testaments, it presents the biblical narratives, characters, and themes as well as their cultural influences.
Students may gain a more nuanced understanding of Shakespeare, with his 1,300 biblical references; or grasp the import of the Exodus to the African-American experience and musical heritage; or learn how the Bible shaped Abraham Lincoln's vision. They may even recognize a biblical origin for their hometown - Corpus Christi, New Canaan, and Salem, for example.
The new textbook "treats faith perspectives with respect, and ... informs and instructs, but does not promote religion," says Chuck Stetson, the Project's founder and chairman.
Others express concern: "I don't think the Constitution prohibits the use of this textbook, but I have real doubts about the wisdom of this approach," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "At this time in America, it's better to simply talk about religious influences when they come up during the study of literature, art, and history, and not take the text of one religious tradition and treat it with special deference."
Mr. Lynn also worries that individual teachers might go beyond the text itself and "spin it in ways that may well violate the Constitution."
As part of a pilot effort during textbook development, the Project provided a training program for 27 public high school teachers over an eight-month period. Five of the teachers received a classroom set of the draft text to test with students.
"Students love the material - it's beautiful," says Joan Spence, a language-arts teacher in Battle Ground, Wash. "It is formatted like other textbooks, and puts them in the English-class mindset. They don't have the temptation to wander off into a Sunday School frame of mind."
Ms. Spence taught a Bible literature course for two years before having access to the textbook, and says she appreciates its "wealth of connections to art, poetry, music - the artists who have created out of inspiration from the Bible."
More than 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court said (in School District of Abingdon Twp. v. Schemp) that it was appropriate to teach about the Bible as long as it "is presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." Still, some courses given in schools have veered into sectarian territory.
"Some of the courses I've encountered around the country over 20 years would not pass muster in a court of law," says Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum's First …