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
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
"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
Mr. Lynn also worries that individual teachers might go beyond
the text itself and "spin it in ways that may well violate the
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 Amendment Center. …