Illinois County School Officials Urged to Steer Clear of 'Bible as History' Course

School officials in Massac County, Ill., have been warned that a new "Bible as History" course for its high schools runs afoul of the Constitution and could open the school district up to a costly court fight.

Today in an eight-page letter to the Massac County Unit School District No. 1, People For the American Way Foundation explained in detail why the school district "should not, and cannot properly, proceed with its plans to teach the Bible 'as history.' "

While it is lawful to teach public school students about the Bible as part of a course on religions or cultures, it is patently unconstitutional to teach students the content of the Bible as historical fact, PFAW Foundation noted. Massac County school officials are considering materials from a North Carolina-based group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) and the Holman Bible Handbook for use in the new course, planned for the fall.

The NCBCPS curriculum uses a religious approach to teaching the Bible that has been rejected by a federal court and school officials across the country because of its constitutional problems. Recently, the PFAW Foundation legal team went to court to stop a Florida school district from using an edition of the "New Testament" portion of the NCBCPS curriculum. In 1998, the court barred the school district from using that portion of the NCBCPS curriculum. In 1999, Georgia's attorney general told the state's board of education that he could not assure it that the NCBCPS curriculum would survive a First Amendment challenge. Earlier this year in Pinellas County, Fla., school officials decided to forgo the curriculum after a school board attorney called it constitutionally problematic. School districts in Missouri, Texas, and Peoria, Ill., have also refused to adopt the NCBCPS curriculum.

Massac County school officials should also avoid use of the Holman Bible Handbook because it "is written not as an objective, academic text, suitable for a public school, but from a Christian perspective, and within that perspective, from the particular sectarian perspective of Protestantism," PFAW Foundation's letter states.

"There is a constitutional way to teach public school students about the Bible and religion, but the approach being considered by Massac County school officials is not that way," said PFAW Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. "Massac County students' religious liberty rights should not be violated by a school-endorsed course that teaches the Bible as history or from a certain faith's perspective."

PFAW Foundation has long advocated a constitutional approach to teaching about religion in the public schools. In fact, PFAW Foundation was among the first to criticize American history textbooks that gave short shrift to or offered inadequate insight on religions. Recently, PFAW Foundation's legal department helped draft a booklet called The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, published in 1999 by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association. That guide was endorsed by an array of groups, some of which are frequently at odds over church-state issues. Some of the supporters include the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress, and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. The guide notes that the Bible is a sacred document for millions of people of faith and therefore "may not be treated as a history textbook by public-school teachers but must be studied by examining a variety of perspectives - religious and non-religious - on the meaning and significance of the biblical account."

"The school district's adoption of this Bible course is troubling," said Jan Czarnik, PFAW Foundation's Illinois director. "The school officials could, and we hope would, do the right thing by offering an educational, constitutional course of study for their students."

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