Proposed Bible Course Sparks Controversy in Memphis Schools

Church & State, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Proposed Bible Course Sparks Controversy in Memphis Schools


School board members in Memphis, Tenn., are fighting over the proper role of religion in the classroom.

The controversy began last year after some board members in Shelby County proposed adding a pair of courses on "Bible history" to the high school curriculum. Board members proposed that the classes be paid for with private donations, which led some residents to suspect that the courses would be more like Sunday School than objective instruction.

"Teaching the Bible as historical fact is just flat illegal," said Cheri Del-Brocco, an Americans United member and church-state separation activist in the county. "If this is legal, why would it have to be paid for with private donations? They know what the law is, and they are trying to skirt it."

Last May, officials with the state Department of Education rejected the county's application to start the courses, saying the proposed classes appeared to be too sectarian in content. The courses, called Bible History I and Bible History II, state officials said, were taught almost exclusively from a Protestant perspective.

In response, some board members proposed a course in comparative religion as an alternative. This suggestion failed to excite Wyatt Bunker, one of the backers of the original class.

A comparative religion course, Bunker said, would be "just altogether a bad idea to teach Hinduism, Buddhism and voodoo and whatever else in schools." He added, "If they don't want God in our schools, then we're not going to have Gandhi in our schools."

Resident Judy Paalborg, who is Jewish and has two children in the county schools, was appalled by Bunker's outburst. "There is enough of a struggle among the children teaching them respect for diversity, and the last thing we need is adults -- especially adults involved in education -- spouting off this poison," she said. "I think he [Bunker] needs to resign after he apologizes to the entire community. He needs to take a comparative religion class himself."

Bunker said he would not apologize or resign and added he will "assure the rest of the community that I am going to be there to protect our children from these types of teachings."

Some board members later indicated they will try to come up with a new Bible course that meets state requirements.

In other news about religion in public schools:

* A new report indicates that most states have mandated teaching about religion objectively in social studies classes. …

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