August 1, 2005
Bible Course Becomes a Test for Public Schools in Texas
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL and BARBARA NOVOVITCH
HOUSTON, July 31 - When the school board in Odessa, the West Texas oil
town, voted unanimously in April to add an elective Bible study course
to the 2006 high school curriculum, some parents dropped to their
knees in prayerful thanks that God would be returned to the classroom,
while others assailed it as an effort to instill religious training in
the public schools.
Hundreds of miles away, leaders of the National Council on Bible
Curriculum in Public Schools notched another victory. A religious
advocacy group based in Greensboro, N.C., the council has been
pressing a 12-year campaign to get school boards across the country to
accept its Bible curriculum.
The council calls its course a nonsectarian historical and literary
survey class within constitutional guidelines requiring the separation
of church and state.
But a growing chorus of critics says the course, taught by local
teachers trained by the council, conceals a religious agenda. The
critics say it ignores evolution in favor of creationism and gives
credence to dubious assertions that the Constitution is based on the
Scriptures, and that "documented research through NASA" backs the
biblical account of the sun standing still.
In the latest salvo, the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group for
religious freedom, has called a news conference for Monday to release
a study that finds the national council's course to be "an
error-riddled Bible curriculum that attempts to persuade students and
teachers to adopt views that are held primarily within conservative
The dispute has made the curriculum, which the national council says
is used by more than 175,000 students in 312 school districts in 37
states, the latest flashpoint in the continuing culture wars over
religious influences in the public domain.
The national council says its course is the only one offered
nationwide. Another organization, the Bible Literacy Project,
supported by a broad range of religious groups, expects to release its
own textbook in September.
According to Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum, which published "The
Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide" five years ago,
"The distinction is between teaching the Bible and teaching about the
Bible - it has to be taught academically, not devotionally."
The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools says its
course "is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of
"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," it
Elizabeth Ridenour, a commercial real estate broker who said she
formed the nonprofit organization in 1993 after deciding that she had
long been "duped" into believing the Bible could not be taught in
public schools, said the course has stayed within legal limits. "Our
teachers are not to say, 'This is the truth,' or that the Bible is
infallible," she said. "They are to say, 'This is what the Bible says;
draw your own conclusions.' "
But in Odessa, where the school board has not decided on a curriculum,
a parent said he found the course's syllabus unacceptably sectarian.
He has been waging his own campaign for additional information on
where it is being taught.
"Someone is being disingenuous; I'd like to know who," said the
parent, David Newman, an associate professor of English at Odessa
College who has made a page-by-page analysis of the 270-page syllabus
and sent e-mail messages to nearly all 1,034 school districts in
The Texas Freedom Network, which commissioned its study after the vote
in Odessa, is sharp in its criticism. "As many as 52 Texas public
school districts and 1,000 high schools across the country are using
an aggressively marketed, blatantly sectarian Bible curriculum that
interferes with the freedom of all families to pass on their own
religious values to their children," it said.
In one teaching unit, students are told, "Throughout most of the last
2,000 years, the majority of men living in the Western world have
accepted the statements of the Scriptures as genuine." The words are
taken from the Web site of Grant R. Jeffrey Ministries' Prophecy on
The national council's efforts are endorsed by the Center for
Reclaiming America, Phyllis Schlafly's group the Eagle Forum,
Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, among
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other
groups have warned school districts against using the curriculum
because of constitutional concerns.
Mike Johnson, a lawyer for the national council, cited a 1999 legal
opinion by four lawyers calling the course permissible under
Apart from a showcase school in Brady, Tex., the national council does
not disclose the schools using its course because it wants to spare
them the disruption of news media inquiries, Ms. Ridenour said.
Only a summary of the course is available on the Internet, and printed
copies cost $150.
A highly critical article in The Journal of Law and Education in 2003
said the course "suffers from a number of constitutional infirmities"
and "fails to present the Bible in the objective manner required."
The journal said that even supplementary materials were heavily
slanted toward sectarian organizations; 83 percent of the books and
articles recommended had strong ties to sectarian organizations, 60
percent had ties to Protestant organizations, and 53 percent had ties
to conservative Protestant organizations, it said.
Among those included are books by David Barton, on the council's
advisory board and the vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party,
who favors "biblical inerrancy," said William Martin, a Rice
University historian and the author of the book "With God on Our Side:
The Rise of the Religious Right in America."
Ms. Ridenour said the course was revised six months ago. But the
freedom network's study concludes that the curriculum's section on
science teaches creationism with no mention of evolution.
The course's broad statements about the Bible being the blueprint for
the nation are askew, said Mr. Haynes of the Freedom Forum, part of a
nonpartisan ecumenical group promoting the Bible Literacy Project
textbook. "If the Bible is a blueprint for the Constitution," he said,
"I guess they haven't read it," referring to the Constitution.
Some of the claims made in the national council's curriculum are
laughable, said Mark A. Chancey, professor of religious studies at
Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who spent seven weeks
studying the syllabus for the freedom network. Mr. Chancey said he
found it "riddled with errors" of facts, dates, definitions and
incorrect spellings. It cites supposed NASA findings to suggest that
the earth stopped twice in its orbit, in support of the literal truth
of the biblical text that the sun stood still in Joshua and II
"When the type of urban legend that normally circulates by e-mail ends
up in a textbook, that's a problem," Mr. Chancey said.
Tracey Kiesling, the national council's national teacher trainer, said
the course offered "scientific documentation" on the flood and cites
as a scientific authority Carl Baugh, described by Mrs. Kiesling as
"an internationally known creation scientist who founded the Creation
Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Tex."
The battle of the Bible course is not over in Odessa, where John
Waggoner, a real estate appraiser, presented petitions with 6,000
signatures in support of the Bible class - many of them on printed
forms of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools -
to the school board of Ector County at its April meeting.
The assistant superintendent, Raymond Starnes, said he wanted to
examine the Bible Literacy Project's textbook before recommending one
for the 2006 school year.
Ralph Blumenthal reported from Houston for this article, and Barbara
Novovitch from Odessa, Tex.