ODESSA, TX — The Ector County School Board agreed today to stop teaching a course in its public schools that unconstitutionally promotes a particular interpretation of the Bible that is not shared by Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and most Protestants.
The agreement settles a federal lawsuit filed in May 2007 that was brought by eight Odessa parents and taxpayers who argued that the course, created by a religious organization, violated their constitutional right to religious liberty by promoting specific religious doctrines to children in their community. The parents were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, People For the American Way Foundation and the law firm of Jenner and Block LLP.
“This agreement is a victory for those who wish religious education to be in the hands of parents and not public school officials,” said Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, Director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “It is unacceptable for government officials to decide which religious beliefs are true and which are not and then use the public school system as a means of proselytizing children.”
The lawsuit challenged the school board’s decision last year to teach a controversial Bible course created by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS), a private group that promotes its own particular interpretation of the Bible. The NCBCPS has been criticized by recognized biblical scholars for its religious bias and unsound scholarship.
Under the agreement, Ector County schools may not teach the current course after this school year. If the board decides to offer a different Bible course in the future, the course must follow strict legal standards for objectivity and may not be based on the NCBCPS curriculum.
“Public schools may offer courses about the Bible if they do so in an objective and balanced way,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, Legal Director of People For the American Way Foundation. “But the evidence is overwhelming that these constitutional principles have been ignored in Ector County schools. Students have been taught one religious interpretation of the Bible. That’s not only violating the Constitution, it’s also giving students a bad education.”
The elective course was being taught in two high schools in Odessa, Texas — Permian High School and Odessa High School.
Among other things, the Bible course required students to give “true” or “false” answers to questions that should be a matter of religious faith. Public school teachers sought to promote religious life lessons by having students memorize biblical passages and then discuss how the passages affected their lives, the groups filing the lawsuit said. The course also presented an unbalanced view of American history that promoted specific religious beliefs that is in conflict with objective scholarly standards.
Douglas C. Hildebrand, an ordained elder and deacon at a local Presbyterian Church and one of the longtime Odessa residents who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said it is inappropriate for one set of religious beliefs to be promoted over others.
“Religion is an essential component of my life and the life of my family, but this course did nothing more than advocate certain religious views that are not shared by everyone,” Hildebrand said. “It seems as though a church had invaded the public school system — and it wasn’t my church.”
Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas, said sound scholarship was never the primary objective of the course.
“This class was never about educating students, but rather the promotion of one particular set of religious beliefs to the exclusion of all others,” Graybill said. “There are a number of ways in which religion’s role in society, history and literature can be constitutionally taught to students, but that was clearly not the objective of this particular course.”
The NCBCPS course has been seriously criticized by Bible scholars for its lack of accuracy, ignorance of scholarly research, and biased promotion of a particular religious interpretation of the Bible. Although the NCBCPS defends its curriculum as being constitutional, its own website at one time revealed a different agenda, urging people to contact NCBCPS as a “first step to get God back in your public school” — a designation that was removed after the lawsuit was filed.
According to Daniel Mach, the Director of Litigation of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Ector County school officials now have a much clearer understanding of what the Constitution does and does not allow.
“The agreement gives the school board a clear roadmap if it decides to adopt a new course,” Mach said. “We trust that any future curriculum will be appropriate for students of all faiths — including nonbelievers — and that it will respect the religious liberty of all Odessans.”
A copy of the original complaint is available online here.