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The Bible in the classroom

David Atchison
05-21-2006

Educators say a Bible literature course is doable with the proper funding, textbooks and course curriculum. (Bob Crisp/The Daily Home)

There was a push in the last legislative session to establish a high school Bible literature course for schools across the state and although the proposed bill floundered, educators say a Bible literature course could work, if done properly.

The bill, which was killed by a republican filibuster in the state House of Representatives, would have created an elective high school course based on the book "The Bible and Its Influence." The decision whether or not to offer the course would be up to the various local boards of education, which would also have the option of adopting other "non-devotional" texts. The bill also provided for funds to purchase the textbooks.

An amendment to the doomed bill also provided "proper teacher training and teacher guides. The teacher training shall have direct instruction on issues regarding teaching and learning, proselytizing, respect for other faiths and denominations, and what is permitted for Bible course in public schoolÖin the opinions of the United States Supreme Court."

Much of the Republican opposition to the bill centered on the legislature recommending a specific textbook that had not been approved by the state Board of Educationís Textbook Committee.

State Superintendent of Education Dr. Joe Morton also saw this as a problem. "I think itís a fine idea, and there are some public schools in Alabama that do have Bible literacy courses without any problem or controversy. We didnít do a full survey, but I know there are several schools in Huntsville offering those classes, and in other places around the state and around the country. I think the problem was it prescribed a particular textbook outside the process of the state Text Book Committee, and not under the guidelines for state textbook adoption. You also have to be careful about naming a particular publisher that you donít violate the state bid law."

But Morton added he had no problem with the concept. "As I said, this exists already at some schools, and I think it is clearly allowable as long you donít proselytize. There are plenty of ways to do it without objection, say as a survey of religion in America or as literature. There are numerous ways you can teach the Bible as long as itís not evangelical in nature. And making the course an elective is another key. If you required every student to take it, you would be crossing a boundary of law."

Already in school

Gayle Jones, public information officer for Talladega County schools, said school systems already touch on religions in studies.

"Not from a religious perspective," Jones said, "but from a historical or great-work-of-literature perspective."

Dr. Jane Cobia, superintendent of Sylacauga City schools agreed, saying the 23rd Psalm is covered in 10th through 12th-grade literature.

"Itís not taught as a religion but as literature," Cobia said.

Current studies, Jones said, include many religions, not just Christianity, providing insight for students into world religions and philosophies, which helped shape different cultures and societies of the past and present.

Dr. Bobby Hathcock, superintendent of Pell City schools, said guidelines for any new course requirement would come from the Alabama State Board of Education or legislators themselves.

"Weíre going to do what the state Board of Education and the legislators tell us," Hathcock said, adding that he doesnít have enough information about what a high school Bible course would entail.

He said a Bible course could be incorporated in a literature course or even offered as an elective course.

"They could do it several ways," Hathcock said. "The key thing would be how itís handled, guidelines you would go by."

Jones said school systems would receive guidance from the Alabama State Board of Education for any new school courses.

"Weíre never given anything from the board of education that we arenít also given guidelines," Jones said, adding "We have to be very careful we adhere to the course study."

Lee Messer, superintendent of Talladega City schools, said there is a fine line between teaching religion and teaching religion as a literature or history course, but it can be done.

"Frankly, I see no major problem with it," Messer said.

He said it would be of utmost importance that the course does not cross the line into religion, but that it focuses on literature style or the historical aspect of the Bible.

"There is a very thin line," Messer said, adding that in some communities throughout the state, there is a diversity of people and religions.

Educators believe a Bible literature class would have an approved textbook for students to use in such a course.

Messer said it would be important to determine the best textbook for the school system, saying the textbook would need to be on middle ground.

"Each school system has a textbook committee which would determine the textbook for the course," Jones said.

She said the textbook committeeís recommendation would go before the school board of education for final approval.

If legislators decide to revisit the issue of a Bible literature class for high school students, Cobia hopes funding will accompany any requirements for a new high school course.

"I would hope there would be funding, at least enough funding to cover the textbooks," she said.

Messer said he believes there would be interest among high school students for a new Bible literature course.

"I would suspect you would have a lot of kids signing up for it," he said.

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