An Excerpt and Commentary Relating to “The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide”

On November 11, 1999, a group of 20 organizations including the National Association of School Boards, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals, American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee and the People for the American Way came together and issued a consensus statement The Bible &Public Schools, A First Amendment Guide.

Charles Haynes, Director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newsmuseum, was formerly the Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center where he was the author of the consensus statement and had previously participated in the Williamsburg Charter in 1989 and had later in 1994 written a consensus state on “Religion & The Public School: A First Amendment Guide.”

Dick Ostling former Religion Editor at Associated Press wrote 10 full page articles on teaching the Bible in public schools subsequent to the publication of The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide. Recently he wrote:

Surveys show there’s appalling ignorance about the basics of the Bible, especially among younger Americans. Even religious skeptics would have to admit that’s a serious cultural and educational problem, wholly apart from Scripture’s religious role. Bible knowledge is essential to comprehending the art of Giotto and Chagall, Bach cantatas and African-American spirituals, Shakespeare’s plays, countless allusions in novels and poems, historical events like the Protestant Reformation and the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the rhetoric of U.S. presidents, populism and pacifism, and on and on.



This fiasco is not what the U.S. Supreme Court intended when it outlawed mandatory Bible readings in public schools for creating an “establishment of religion” that violated the Constitution’s First Amendment (in Abington v. Schempp,1963). Though the justices barred ceremonial and devotional use of the Bible, they included this key clarification:

“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

So the Supreme Court itself has explained the “why,” but the “how” has proven difficult during the ensuing half-century. School districts have been reluctant to apply the Court’s admonition, fearful of legal threats, wary of maneuvering through America’s growing religious diversity, and unsure how to obtain appropriate teachers and curricula.

President Clinton’s education department provided brief guidance in 1995. Then in 1999 Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, the Society of Biblical Literature (a body of university and seminary Bible scholars), and the Bible Literacy Project (see below) sought to overcome “confusion and conflict” through a remarkable 13-page agreement, “The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide.” This policy is endorsed by an unusually wide coalition that includes seven major public school organizations, evangelical and “mainline” Protestants, three prominent Jewish groups, the Council on Islamic Education, and others.

This booklet’s material about curriculum says “objective” Bible coursework should cover a variety of interpretations and “neither promote nor disparage religion, nor should it be taught from a particular sectarian point of view.” Teachers should be selected for academic qualifications, not religious views, with no non-school involvement, just as with other subjects. Textbooks should not be “devotional.” Schools should not “undermine or reinforce” students’ “faith in the Bible or lack of such belief.” Supernatural events in the Bible “may not be taught as historical fact.” Students “cannot be uncritically taught to accept the Bible as literally true, as history. Nor should they be uncritically taught to accept as historical only what secular historians find verifiable in the Bible.” This careful balancing act displeases some religious traditionalists.

Below are some key excerpts for “The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide” about teaching the Bible and Literature and the Bible in History in America in a constitutionally acceptable way:

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion which is unconstitutional and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair which is constitutional.

The Bible and Literature

Academic study of the Bible in a public secondary school may appropriately take place in literature courses. Students might study the Bible as literature. They would examine the Bible as they would other literature in terms of aesthetic categories, as an anthology of narratives and poetry, exploring its language, symbolism, and motifs. Students might also study the Bible in literature, the ways in which later writers have used Bible literature, language, and symbols. Much drama, poetry, and fiction contains material from the Bible.

Bible Electives in Literature

A literature elective in the Bible would focus on the Bible as a literary text. This might include the Bible as literature and the Bible in literature. A primary goal of the course would be basic biblical literacy a grasp of the language, major narratives, symbols, and characters of the Bible. The course might also explore the influence of the Bible in classic and contemporary poems, plays, and novels.

Of course, the Bible is not simply literature for a number of religious traditions it is scripture. A “Bible Literature” course, therefore, could also include some discussion of how various religious traditions understand the text. This would require that literature teachers be adequately prepared to address in an academic and objective manner the relevant, major religious readings of the text.

The Bible and History

The study of history offers a number of opportunities to study about the Bible. When studying the origins of Judaism, for example, students may learn different theories of how the Bible came to be. In a study of the history of the ancient world, students may learn how the content of the Bible sheds light on the history and beliefs of Jews and Christians adherents of the religions that affirm the Bible as scripture. A study of the Reformation might include a discussion of how Protestants and Catholics differ in their interpretation and use of the Bible.

In U.S. history, there are natural opportunities for students to learn about the role of religion and the Bible in American life and society. For example, many historical documents including many presidential addresses and congressional debates contain biblical references. Throughout American history, the Bible has been invoked on various sides of many public-policy debates and in conjunction with social movements such as abolition, temperance, and the civil rights movement. A government or civics course may include some discussion of the biblical sources for parts of our legal system.

Learning about the history of the Bible, as well as the role of the Bible in history, are appropriate topics in a variety of courses in the social studies.

Bible Electives in History

An elective history course that focuses on the Bible is a difficult undertaking for public schools because of the complex scholarly and religious debates about the historicity of the Bible. Such a course would need to include non-biblical sources from a variety of scholarly perspectives. Students would study archeological findings and other historical evidence in order to understand the history and cultures of the ancient world. Teachers who may be assigned to teach a history course focused on the Bible need a great deal of preparation and sophistication.

Unless schools are prepared to design a course that meets the above requirements, they will face legal and educational challenges. In view of these requirements, most public schools that have offered a Bible elective have found it safer and more age-appropriate to use the Bible literature approach discussed earlier in this guide.

Schools must keep in mind that the Bible is seen by millions of Jews and Christians as scripture. For adherents of these faiths, the Bible makes sense of events in terms of God’s purposes and actions. This means that the Bible 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.

As we have already noted, sorting out what is historical in the Bible is complicated and potentially controversial. Teachers who teach a history course focused on the Bible need to be sensitive to the differences between conventional secular history and the varieties of sacred history. Students must learn something about the contending ways of assessing the historicity of the Bible. They cannot be uncritically taught to accept the Bible as literally true, as history. Nor should they be uncritically taught to accept as historical only what secular historians find verifiable in the Bible.

Sometimes, in an attempt to make study about the Bible more “acceptable” in public schools, educators are willing to jettison accounts of miraculous events. But this too is problematic, for it radically distorts the meaning of the Bible. For those who accept the Bible as scripture, God is at work in history, and there is a religious meaning in the patterns of history. A Bible elective in a public school may examine all parts of the Bible, as long as the teacher understands how to teach about the religious content of the Bible from a variety of perspectives.

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