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The Tribune-Democrat: April 1, 2007
Area high school offers Bible-as-literature elective


Richland Senior High School is making history this spring, as school officials announced a new course: The Bible as Literature.

“I think we’re on the cutting edge with this in the area,” Principal Tom Fleming said.

“It’s groundbreaking territory for us, and there certainly is a movement to get this more readily available.”

Richland will be the first school in Pennsylvania to teach the Bible Literacy Project’s version of the elective course – though at least one other organization, The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, claims other school districts in the state already use a version of Bible-as-literature courses. Neither the council nor the Bible Literacy Project make public the names of participating schools.

According to Sheila Weber, the Bible Literacy Project’s communications vice president, this version of the course is being offered in 83 schools throughout 30 states and five countries.

“We are fairly new,” she said. “This school year was really the first year we’ve had our textbook out. And we are seeing a huge increase for next year.”

And, already, the project is gaining a lot of media attention, including a cover story in the current issue of Time magazine.

Efforts to introduce similar classes across the country have been well received, according to, the Web site of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

That organization says that 373 school districts in 37 states, including Pennsylvania, offer such classes.

Using a textbook called “The Bible and Its Influence,” Richland teachers will examine the Bible as a work of literature and not discuss religious beliefs.

“This is about education, not religion,” Weber said. “The textbook was uniquely written for public high schools, and it’s all across the country, not just in the ‘Bible Belt.’

“Courts have said you can teach its content but not promote nor disparage religious beliefs.”

Fleming wants students and parents to know that this is just another course being offered, and that there is no requirement to enroll in it.

“Our stance is that it is an elective course,” he said. “If it’s something (students are) interested in, it will be available to them. But there haven’t yet been any objections or positive feedback.”

That is because the student course book for next year hasn’t been mailed home yet, and the decision to add the course was made without much fuss.

“A few weeks ago, Msgr. (Michael) Becker made a presentation to our school board about adding the course, and they were receptive.”

Becker, of St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church in Geistown, said the idea to bring this Bible course to the area came about a year and a half ago, when he read about it.

“I followed my nose and read up a bit more,” Becker said. “Everyone I spoke with said it was a great idea, so I spoke with the principal and school board members. Their response was exceptionally positive. I didn’t hear any negatives.”

And he doesn’t anticipate many negative responses once word gets out.

“Do I anticipate any opposition? No, because they can choose not to take the course.”

Both Fleming and Becker said the course is designed to analyze the Bible as a work of literature, not as a religious work. Consequently, students will take an in-depth look at an influential book in an effort to further advance their college preparation.

“I think most of the kids taking it will be college-bound and will be able to discuss literature at a higher level,” Fleming said. “It might end up being a course just for juniors and seniors, but we’re not sure for now.”

Becker said he has had several conversations with a Pitt-Johnstown literature professor who has taught a similar course to her college students.

“I think it is a tremendous step in helping young people prepare for college,” he said. “And, from a clergyman’s perspective, I think understanding the Bible can prompt students to explore other spiritual ideas on their own.

“But that is not a step for schools to take.”

Weber agreed.

“What we have found is that the vast majority is thrilled with this,” she said, adding that views on the subject tend to be extreme. “There are a limited number of folks who would prefer that schools teach Sunday school materials. Then there is a group that says the Bible should be out of daily life.”

The Bible Literacy Project sits right in the middle, Becker says – which is why he hopes it will grow in the area.

“Nationally, they’re talking about it, and there is other interest in the area,” he said. “It’s already being discussed in other schools in the county.

“That tells us we are ahead of the curve in Richland.”

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