A high school course that seeks to teach the Bible as
history has set the stage in Fort Meyers, Fla., for what looks to
be the nation's next legal showdown over the place of religion in
Supporters say the subject matter will be taught in a secular
manner and that enrollment is voluntary. Opponents say unless
changes are made, the courses will violate the constitutional
separation of church and state.
"To use the Bible as a text and say this is how history
unfolded is not history, it is a religious interpretation of
history," says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum First Amendment
Center at Vanderbilt University.
The classes come at a time of growing interest - and
controversy - over the study of the Scripture in schools. From Utah
to North Carolina, students are enrolling in courses that seek to
tell the past through the Bible.
In some cases, proponents are trying to circumvent
constitutional problems by instructing teachers how to teach - not
preach - religion. In other cases - particularly when the
curriculum is more overtly religious - they are holding study
groups off campus to avoid disputes.
But Fort Meyer's curriculum, which is already used in 22
states, will be taught in the schools - and thus is becoming a test
case of where the law stands on mixing the study of Jeremiah with
Both Old and New Testament courses are to be offered as
electives in January at all eight high schools in the Lee County
School District. The school board made the decision last week, but
some critics say they may seek an injunction in federal court to
block the classes.
John Dowless, executive director of the Christian Coalition
of Florida, says the school board is merely seeking to offer the
option to those students who want to study the Bible at school.
"This is a curriculum that is an elective. If students want to take
it they can, if they don't want to they don't have to," he says.
"The Bible is the No. 1. best-selling book in the history of the
The courses were developed by the National Council on Bible
Curriculum in Public Schools, a nonprofit group based in
"The Bible is history and literature," says Elizabeth
Ridenour, who heads the council. "Most of the founding documents of
our country were based on the Bible. Without a working knowledge of
the Bible, students couldn't even understand the basis on which our
Constitution was founded."
Ms. Ridenour adds, "You don't get that kind of information in
a Sunday school class."
Opponents say that if the classes are conducted as planned,
they will violate US Supreme Court rulings that prohibit the use of
public funds to promote one religious view at the expense of