Sectarian elements in public school Bible courses: lessons from the Lone Star State.

Author:Chancey, Mark A.

"You're just taking the historical facts, theories and philosophies, looking at people's lives. You're ... imparting information just about the facts in the Bible."--the principal of a Texas public high school offering a Bible elective in the 2005-2006 school year. (1)

If current interest in the issue indicates anything, the number of Bible courses in public schools is on the rise. Legislators introduced bills promoting elective Bible courses in at least nine states in 2006 and 2007, three of which--in Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas--became laws. (2) Two national organizations are heavily marketing Bible curricula designed specifically for public schools--the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) and the Bible Literacy Project (BLP). (3) Odessa, Texas, attracted national media attention in 2005-2006, when its school district decided to teach the NCBCPS curriculum, and again in May 2007, when eight citizens filed a suit challenging the legality of the course. (4) Reports of similar controversies in other communities surface regularly in the media.

Bible courses in public schools are legal--if they are taught from a nonsectarian perspective. The 1963 Supreme Court ruling in Abington Township v. Schempp prohibited state-sponsored devotional reading of the Bible in public schools but explicitly allowed for its academic study:

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. (5)

Confusion abounds, however, about what constitutes "objective presentation" and a "secular program of education"--in short, about what differentiates sectarian from nonsectarian--despite the availability of both popular and scholarly literature addressing the issue. A booklet, The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, provides an accessible summary of the pertinent federal district court decisions, (6) and scholarly studies include insightful discussions of educational and constitutional considerations. (7) These resources have their strengths, but two important elements are often missing from such discussions: detailed information about specific courses and the voices of biblical scholars. (8)

The present study attempts to help fill in these lacunae by evaluating recent Texas Bible courses from the perspective of a biblical scholar and in light of pertinent court rulings; doing so also provides an occasional opportunity to offer a biblical scholar's comment on the rulings themselves. (9) As will be seen, these courses often include strong sectarian elements. One suspects that evaluations of Bible courses in other states would yield similar results; a People for the American Way (PFAW) study of curricula in Florida, for example, documented the sectarian natures of the courses of fourteen school districts in the 1990s. (10)

This study's objectives are to: (1) identify and document specific areas of confusion regarding what constitutes sectarian elements in a Bible course; (2) provide information that will help educators develop more appropriate courses; (3) provide information to help safeguard the First Amendment rights of students and other citizens; and (4) contribute to interdisciplinary dialogue on these issues between scholars in religious and theological studies, church-state studies, public policy, and education. Such dialogue is necessary because, as Stephen Prothero has rightly argued, when constructing constitutional Bible courses, the devil is in the details. (11) Implementing the courses is never as straightforward as "imparting information just about the facts in the Bible."


Researchers have been lamenting the dearth of detailed information about public school Bible courses since before Abington v. Schempp. (12) Until recently, the most comprehensive study of the topic was the 2000 PFAW report. In 2005-2006, however, an investigation of such courses in Texas was undertaken by Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an Austin-based watchdog and advocacy group dedicated to advancing "a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right." (13) Citing the state's Public Information Act, the TFN Education Fund asked all 1,031 Texas districts whether they had offered a Bible course in the previous five academic years. It asked all that answered affirmatively to provide syllabi, lesson plans, lists of teacher and student resources, tests, quizzes, handouts, and descriptions of teacher qualifications. School districts were compensated for expenses incurred in this process, and eventually all complied with these requests. (14) Thirty-three school districts were identified as having offered courses since the 2001-2002 school year, with twenty-five teaching courses in 2005-2006. This author received course materials from multiple school years for the latter twenty-five districts for evaluation. Of these districts, only three (Leander, North East, and Whiteface Consolidated) offered courses that could be reasonably described as nonsectarian. In every case, the courses of the remaining districts were taught from perspectives typical of certain conservative Protestant circles. The study discovered no courses taught primarily from mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, or anti-religious perspectives. A popular-level report of these findings was published in September 2006. (15)

At 25 out of 1031, the school districts offering Bible courses constituted less than 3 percent of the state's total--a surprisingly small number for a Bible Belt state like Texas. The available data are insufficient to trace the popularity of such courses over time, but the mid-twentieth century data are instructive. Though Texas approved for-credit Bible courses in 1937, unpublished studies carried out before Abington v. Schempp show that relatively few districts offered them and that many were short-lived. (17) The low number of courses in Texas was not atypical; a nationwide survey from the same period found that only 4.51 percent of school districts offered Bible courses, though the frequency was twice as high (9 percent) in the South. (18) One wonders if such courses have ever been common, in Texas or elsewhere. (19)

The basic parameters of the situation in Texas in 2005-2006 can be quickly sketched. All courses were taught as electives, mostly in Grades 11-12, but sometimes also in Grades 9-10.20 Most schools devoted one semester to the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament and one to the New Testament, though some treated both Testaments in a single semester. Courses were typically offered as either Social Studies (sometimes as History) or English. Districts that offered courses varied considerably in size, from small rural communities to large cities, with a median total district enrollment of 3,626 students. Most courses were recent creations, appearing in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Big Spring ISD had the longest running course; the district dated it to 1932-1933, though an earlier study traced it only to the mid-1940s. (21) Either way, the district established the course during the heyday of the Weekday Religious Education movement. (22)

Bible Courses and the Law

It may be true, as Sharon Keller has noted, that in regard to many issues, "the law speaks with too many disharmonious voices on the question of religion and the schools." (23) For the most part, however, federal courts considering Bible courses have spoken with one voice, and the philosophical consistency of their rulings gives them strong precedent value. (24) Courts have generally placed considerable weight on the three-pronged "Lemon test," asking whether the school district's actions "have a secular purpose"; whether their "principal or primary effect" "advances or inhibits religion"; and whether they foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion." (25) Some have also employed the "Endorsement Test," considering whether the district's actions had the "purpose or effect of 'endorsing' religion" and whether they conveyed "a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred." (26) Wiley v. Franklin clearly articulated the basic benchmark for evaluating whether Bible courses meet such tests: "If that which is taught seeks either to disparage or to encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs, it is constitutionally impermissible in a public school setting." (27) Thus, it summarized, the legal issue "is not the Bible itself, but rather the selectivity, emphasis, objectivity, and interpretive manner, or lack thereof, with which the Bible is taught." (28) In short, schools may teach about religion, but they may not teach religion itself. (29)

The course materials from Texas suggest that many schools think that they are meeting the legal standards as long as they do not proselytize or explicitly advocate Christian doctrine, though some fail even these tests. What schools often do not recognize is that when their courses promote views that are held primarily within certain religious circles but not others or among the general public or the scholarly community, they are inculcating their students with particular religious beliefs while discouraging other viewpoints. (30) Indeed, as the following survey demonstrates, courses may lapse into sectarianism in a variety of ways.


In twenty districts, regular school personnel teach the courses. Only five of these teachers, however, had ever taken any higher education course work in biblical or religious studies, and the amount of their studies varied considerably. The contexts of their studies also varied, including a public school, a mainline Protestant (United Methodist)...

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