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Public schools looking at Bible literacy class.

Wed, January 25, 2006
By Mike Linn

High schools across the nation are considering an elective course in Bible literacy. That's pitting advocates of church-state separation against proponents of the class who say their mission is purely scholarly.

Lawmakers in Alabama and. Georgia in the past few weeks have introduced legislation clearing the way for their high schools to offer the course, which is based on the textbook The Bible and its Influence.

Bible Literacy Project Featured in USA Today, January 25, 2006

The book's publisher, the Fairfax, Va,-based Bible Literacy Project, says about 300 school districts are considering the course, which covers the Old Testament, followed by both Jews and Christians, and the New Testament, the story of Jesus and his disciples.

In the past week, the school board in New Braunfels, Texas, voted to offer the course next year. Some high schools in California, Oregon and Washington, where the text was tested in a pilot program last year, already are offering it.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, says the textbook, which is promoted as an examination of the Bible's influence on literature, art, history and culture, successfully keeps religion out of public schools. The center is a non-profit institute that promotes constitutional freedoms covered by the First Amendment.

"If you’re considering a Bible elective, look at this textbook," says Haynes, who helped review a draft of the book with 41 other scholars, including Christians, Jews and agnostics. "They've done a Herculean effort to make it as constitutional as they could,"

The textbook does have critics, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
“There has been an effort underway for many years to try to do an end run around the Supreme Court's rulings on religion in the schools, and we see this as the latest move," says Joseph Conn, a spokesman for the group.

The textbook has generated no lawsuits, says Sheila Weber, a spokeswoman for the Bible Literacy Project. Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Beliefs, also says he hasn't heard of any litigation.

"If people were to actually implement this in a fair and neutral way, there wouldn't be any lawsuits," Gunn says. "If people are going to use this as a backdoor way to proselytizing in public schools, I would imagine there would be lawsuits.”

Conn says the textbook paints the Bible's influence mostly in a positive light. However, Chuck Stetson, founder of the Bible Literacy Project, says the textbook does examine the Bible's negative impact. As an example, he sites a boxed feature in the book that he says shows the Bible was used "to justify and even encourage anti-Semitism."

Stetson describes the course as being academic and says it helps connect the dots for students who would not be able, for example, to understand the works of Shakespeare without understanding their biblical references.

Linn reports daily for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. Contributing: Kasie Hunt in McLean, Va.


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