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Democrats in 2 Southern States Push Bills on Bible Study

January 27, 2006
New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are in turn denouncing them as "pharisees," a favorite term of liberals for politicians who exploit religion.

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

Democrats in both states have introduced bills authorizing school districts to teach courses modeled after a new textbook, "The Bible and Its Influence." It was produced by the nonpartisan, ecumenical Bible Literacy Project and provides an assessment of the Bible's impact on history, literature and art that is academic and detached, if largely laudatory.

The Democrats who introduced the bills said they hoped to compete with Republicans for conservative Christian voters. "Rather than sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are going to respond in a thoughtful way," said Kasim Reed, a Georgia state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of the bill. "We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith."

Charles P. Stetson, Jr.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

In Georgia, the proposal marked a new course for the Democratic Party. The state's Democrats, including some sponsors of the bill, opposed a Republican proposal a few years ago to authorize the teaching of a different Bible course, which used a translation of the Scriptures as its text, calling it an inappropriate endorsement of religion. The sponsors say they are introducing their Bible measure now partly to pre-empt a potential Republican proposal seeking to display the Ten Commandments in schools.

In Alabama, a deeply religious state where Democrats support prayer in the schools and a Democratic candidate for governor recently introduced her campaign with the hymn "Give Me That Old Time Religion," the Bible class bills reflect Democrats' efforts to distance themselves from the national party.

"We have always had to somewhat defend ourselves from the national Democratic Party's secular image, and this is part of that," said Ken Guin, a representative from Carbon Hill, leader of the Democratic majority in the State House and a sponsor of the measure.

Democrats in other states are moving in the same direction, jumping into a conversation about religion and values that some party leaders began after the 2004 election, when President Bush and the Republicans rode those themes to victory.

Rob Carr/Associated Press

In Indiana, Democratic legislators are among the leaders of a bipartisan effort to preserve the recitation of specifically Christian prayers in the Statehouse. In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine relied heavily on religious themes and advertised on evangelical radio stations to win election last fall; Democratic Party leaders have called his campaign a national model.

In an interview, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, promised that Democrats would do a better job talking about values to religious voters. "We have done it in a secular way, and we don't have to," he said, adding, "I think teaching the Bible as literature is a good thing."

Christian conservatives, however, say they have been pushing public schools to offer courses on the Bible for decades, and Republicans in both Alabama and Georgia say some schools already offer such electives.

"Their proposal makes them modern-day pharisees," State Senator Eric Johnson of Georgia, the Republican leader from Savannah, said in a statement. "This is election-year pandering using voters' deepest beliefs as a tool."

Saying he found "a little irony" in the fact that the Democratic sponsors had voted against a Republican proposal for a Bible course six years ago, Mr. Johnson added, "It should also be noted that the so-called Bible bill doesn't use the Bible as the textbook, and would allow teachers with no belief at all in the Bible to teach the course."

Betty Peters, a Republican on the Alabama school board who opposed the initiative in that state, also dismissed the initiative as "pandering." Democrats, she argued, had adopted a new strategy: "Let's just wrap ourselves in Jesus."

For the last dozen years, most efforts to promote teaching the Bible in public schools have come from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a conservative Christian group based in Greensboro, N.C., that advocates using the Bible as the primary textbook. The group says about 380 school districts in 37 states offer its curriculum.

But its curriculum often draws attacks from civil liberties groups. Democratic sponsors of the Bible class bills say their efforts would help shield local school districts from First Amendment lawsuits, in part by recommending a more neutral approach.

The textbook they endorse was the brainchild of Chuck Stetson, a New York investment manager and theologically conservative Episcopalian who says he was concerned about public ignorance of the Bible.

Mr. Stetson helped produce "The Bible and Its Influence" as the centerpiece of a course that seeks to teach about the Bible and its legacy without endorsing or offending any specific faith.

The textbook came to the attention of Democratic legislators in Alabama and Georgia through the advocacy of R. Randolph Brinson, a Republican and founder of the evangelical voter-registration group Redeem the Vote.

Mr. Brinson, who said he was working with legislators in other states as well, described his pitch to Democrats as, "Introducing this bill will show the evangelical world that they are not hostile to faith."

Some liberals are unhappy, however. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that "The Bible and Its Influence" was "problematic" because it omitted "the bad and the ugly uses of the Bible," like the invocation of Scripture to justify racial segregation.

Conservative Christian groups have been skeptical, too. "This appears to be a calculated effort by the Democrats to try to out-conservative the conservatives," said Stephen M. Crampton, a lawyer for the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group that supports the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

"To mention any curriculum by name is suggestive of some back-room deal cut with the publishers," Mr. Crampton said.

For his part, Mr. Stetson, founder of the group that produced the textbook, said a political fight was not what he wanted. "We are the first English-speaking generation to have lost the biblical story," he said, lamenting that studying the Bible had become "a political football."


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