By William Fisher
Despite numerous court setbacks and continuing challenges from civil liberties organizations, the religious right is stepping up its efforts to introduce the Bible into public school classrooms– and now claims that it is being used as a textbook in classes taught in 300 school districts nationwide.
One of the major providers of Bible teaching materials, the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, (NCBCPS) says it's "amazed at the snowball effect that is taking place across America" as more districts adopt the material.
The campaign seems to have gained significant momentum as the influence of the religious right has increased in the Republican Party over the past decade, and particularly since the 2004 presidential election.
Elizabeth Ridenour, NCBCPS's president, says, “The curriculum for the program shows a concern to convey the content of the Bible as compared to literature and history. The program is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students. The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education.”
Civil liberties organizations take a decidedly different view. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU) brought the first legal challenge to the introduction of the Bible into publicly-funded education by suing the school board in Lee County (Ft. Myers), Florida. A settlement was reached when the school board agreed to replace its Bible course with a “secular, objective and neutral” curriculum, and to use a college-level critical analysis of biblical scholarship, and permit monitoring of its classes by audiotape for approximately one year.
Howard Simon, ACLU Executive Director, told IPS, "While the Bible has a place in the public schools as part of a genuinely secular course of education, it cannot be taught as literal history." He added, "The Bible is a sacred text, not a history text.”
Another advocacy group, People for the American Way, agrees. Judith Schaeffer, PFAW’s Deputy Legal Director, told IPS, “This and other similar groups want to introduce only one version of the Bible – The King James version of the New Testament – ignoring the many versions accepted by others. Furthermore, they want to present this one version as ‘history’. It is not history.”
Ms. Ridenour says her organization's elective class, The Bible in History and Literature, “examines many aspects you wouldn't expect to find in a Sunday School class such as how the Bible influenced America's founding fathers, art, music and literature, including Shakespeare.” She is, however, referring to the King James version of the New Testament.
The separation of church and state is one of the cardinal principles embedded in the First Amendment to the US constitution. Two clauses in this section of the Bill of Rights guarantee freedom of religion. The ‘establishment clause’ prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the separation of church and state. The ‘free exercise’ clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person’s practice of their religion.
But the high court has consistently upheld the teaching of the Bible as literature, as long as it is not employed for devotional purposes or indoctrination.
That, Ms. Ridenour says, is her organization’s goal. Opponents contend the opposite is true.
Says Howard Simon: “If you adopt a curriculum that disguises Bible stories suitable for Sunday school as literal history; if you try to address moral and character development by simply proselytizing young people with sectarian religious views; if you dismiss the constitutional requirements of separation of church and state in the public schools as a mere fiction of a tyrannical judiciary, you too will ineptly end up in court.”
Pursuing that agenda, civil liberties groups routinely write to school boards that have been asked to make Bible teaching part of their normal curricula. Their letters refer to court decisions upholding separation of church and state, and limitations placed on these courses by various courts.
Most school boards, they say, are grateful for the guidance and reject the curriculum proposed by organizations like the NCBCPS.
But Ms. Ridenour says about 1,000 high schools in 35 states are using material produced by her organization in classes during regular school hours. It claims that 93 percent of all the school boards it has approached to implement the curriculum have accepted it.
"This paradigm shift is not only taking place in the Bible Belt but in school districts in Alaska, California, across the board to Pennsylvania and down to Florida," her organization says.
However, it declines to provide a list of the school districts in which its course materials are being used.
Ms. Ridenour founded the NCBCPS in 1993. Her work has been endorsed by most of the better-known Christian fundamentalist and evangelical personalities and groups. She is a member of the highly-secretive Council on National Policy (CNP), founded in 1981 as an umbrella organization of right-wing leaders who gather regularly to plot strategy, share ideas and fund causes and candidates to advance the far-right agenda. Last year, the group gave an unannounced award to US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a conservative from Tennessee who is widely reported to be seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008.
The NCBCPS Board of Directors includes a number of prominent members of the religious right. Among them is its general counsel, Steve Crampton, who believes that current IRS tax codes that prohibit not-for-profit organizations, such as religious organizations, from advocating particular political candidates or parties, “leaves churches unduly muzzled.”
The organization’s extensive Advisory Board includes conservative members of the US House and Senate, numerous state legislators, and large financial donors.
The NCBCPS sees a connection between a1963 court decision, when “the Bible largely was removed from classrooms” and “dramatic increases in unwed pregnancies, cases of sexually transmitted diseases, violent behavior and other social factors.”
The group says its updated 300-page curriculum and a new CD-Rom is already being requested by school districts.