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Bible Course Becomes a Test for Public Schools in Texas

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  • Susan Cogan
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/01/education/01bible.html?th=&oref=logn&emc=th&pagewanted=print August 1, 2005 Bible Course Becomes a Test for Public Schools in
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2005
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/01/education/01bible.html?th=&oref=logn&emc=th&pagewanted=print

      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
      Protestant circles."

      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
      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," it
      says.

      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
      Texas.

      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
      Line.

      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
      others.

      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
      constitutional guidelines.

      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
      Kings.

      "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.
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