By Brittany Leonard
With 783,137 words, 3,294 questions, and written 1,500 years ago, the Bible is considered by millions to be a sacred religious text and may soon make its way into high school classrooms.
School boards and organizations across the nation are debating use of the Bible as a textbook in bible literacy classes designed as elective English or social studies classes for grades 9-12.
Currently, eight percent of students have access to a course where the Bible is part of the curriculum, according to a Gallup poll last year sponsored by the Bible Literacy Project.
The organization is a non-partisan, non-profit group advocating Bible literacy in schools with its own new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” released last September. The textbook has already been adopted by 13 schools for the fall curriculum and is under consideration by various school districts in all 50 states.
This companion guide to the Bible and its role in public education promise to be a hot issue in the discussion over the separation of church and state. Members of the Bible Literacy Project note the textbook”s objectivity and its novel approach in offering a university-accredited teaching program to accompany the text.
“This class wouldn”t be seminary or a comparative religion class, but would treat the Bible as a text respectfully and would let it speak for itself,” said Sheila Weber, spokesperson for the Bible Literacy Project.
Over 40 reviewers, with various specialties in religion, education and law, examined the text for accuracy, fairness and level of scholarship before publishing, including BYU professor Roger Baker, associate professor of English.
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have some reservations about the text. They also have reservations about the chairman and founder of the project, Chuck Stetson, a venture capitalist who they consider a religious right-wing activist.
“Religion can be taught in classrooms as an appropriate, academic exercise but it”s troubling when a politically minded group promotes it,” said Joe Conn, spokesman for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We think religious material should be discussed as it comes up in other subjects, like the pilgrims in Massachusetts and Christian references in classical music.”
Educators seem to agree that biblical knowledge is valuable, with 82 percent of English teachers saying that teaching the Bible is important in literature classes, according to a survey done by the Bible Literacy Project. A study of one English Advanced Placement prep course found that 60 percent of allusions came from the bible.
Most public schools, however, don”t offer biblical coursework, partly due to legal worries surrounding the First Amendment and the burden of objectivity required for teaching the Bible in a public high school setting.
The U.S. Supreme Court”s 1963 decision barring schoolroom Bible reading states, “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities” if “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
The debate now is whether this textbook, or any textbook, meets that criterion.
Locally, the Provo School District hasn”t discussed any use of the Bible as a textbook but acknowledges that the culture here is little different.
“In Utah, the state has approved release-time programs for high schools for any church that wants to offer them, whether sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or another,” said Greg Hudnall, spokesperson for the district. “We haven”t been approached to offer anything like [Bible study courses], but it could change – everything can change.”