Bible Use in Class Debated Board of Education Caught in Tug-of-War

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- More than just new faces greeted Thomson High's approximately 1,150 students when they started school Tuesday.

A new course was being offered as well: Bible history.

The McDuffie County school board had approved the course on the request of residents, and so had state curriculum officials. About 20 Thomson students attended the first class.

There was no special agenda behind the move.

"I think in our community, it was just a feeling that a lot of people wanted the opportunity to study Bible history," said McDuffie County Superintendent Ed Grisham.

But by Friday, the teenagers were studying current affairs instead. Grisham said the school district would hold off on Bible history until the state Board of Education decides whether it's legal for the state to fund such a class.

Thousands of Georgians have contacted the Department of Education in the past month through e-mails, telephone calls, petitions, letters and faxes, urging the board to include Bible history in the list of classes the state will fund.

Board Chairman Otis Brumby stalled what was expected to be a testy constitutional and religious debate Thursday by announcing he would seek a legal opinion from state Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

Both sides argue the issue already has been settled by the courts.

Supporters say the U.S. Supreme Court has held that schools can teach about religion and the Bible, provided they don't proselytize. They say more than 100 school districts in 29 states have used the curriculum being considered in Georgia.

But critics cite a federal court ruling against a class in Lee County, Fla., that used similar course materials produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

"Constitutional problems arise because curricula of the social science courses include a very Christian perspective on the Bible," said Brian Kintisch, director of the Center for Children and Education in Macon.

"Jews and Muslims would be offended by many of the classroom exercises included in the curricula, because the vocabulary, the historical interpretations and the moral perspective are purely Christian."

There are political differences on the issue as well. State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko supports the classes. So do Christian conservative lawmakers like Rep. Tommy Smith, D-Alma, who promised to introduce legislation on the issue if the Board of Education doesn't act, and Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Snellville, who has vowed support for such a bill.

"The arguments of [critics] have been defeated in the courts, their fears are unfounded and we have enough division in our state," Williams told the state school board. "Do not summarily dismiss Jewish history or Bible history from our course catalog because of a few extremists."

On the other side, board member Cathy Henson of Marietta fears state approval could be seen by school districts as an endorsement of classes that would send school districts into court. …