The perennial favorites among high school electives have traditionally been psychology, drama and art. These days, however, the favorites have come to include a subject long considered forbidden: the Bible.
Three decades after the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in the public schools, Bible classes are making a comeback in high schools across the nation. In North Carolina, a leader in the resurrection of religion at school, the number of Bible classes has nearly tripled over the past four years.These new electives are, in many cases, detonating a minefield of legal questions. Yet, under the law, teaching about religion or the Bible is perfectly legal so long as the instruction is academic and not devotional. Schools cannot promote or denigrate any one faith. They must stay neutral.
But walking that fine line of neutrality can be difficult, especially when there are no widely used text-books on the subject and little teacher training available.
Although some districts have written intellectually challenging Bible classes that have won praise from legal and academic quarters, experts say that many other school districts don't give the class the careful attention it deserves. And they run the risk of ending up in court.
"The good news is that in the last decade, there has been a growing consensus on the importance of teaching about religion," says Charles Haynes, scholar in residence at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a leader in the field of religion in the public schools. "The bad news is that getting schools to do it right is more difficult than getting national groups to agree on it."
Many of the schools that have adopted Bible electives in the past decade have done so at the urging of conservative Christians, Haynes said.
Such was the case in Fort Myers, Fla., according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the People for the American Way and seven residents of Lee County in Florida. The suit alleges that against the advice of two lawyers, the school board in October pushed through a curriculum that is intended to promote Christianity - a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
The curriculum is the product of the National Council on Bible Cur-riculum in the Public Schools, a small nonprofit group in Greensboro that says its course outline is used in 53 school districts across the country.
According to the lawsuit, William Bracken, a member of the com-mittee recommending the new curriculum, wrote: "Our founding fathers, as you know, thought the Bible should be taught as a required subject . . . I do not understand how Jewish people can ob-ject since the Old Testament, which is essentially the Jewish Bible, will be taught as a separate course. Besides, this is a Christian nation, and being founded on the Bible, how can we understand our own country without a knowledge of the Bible?"
On the night the board voted on the curriculum, school board chair-man Douglas Santini said he quoted from the Bible regularly when he was an elementary school teacher in the 1960s. "We weren't afraid of a lawsuit at that time; we weren't afraid to really give things kids needed in society." The five-member board voted 3-2 to adopt the curriculum.
Recently, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich cleared the way for Lee County schools to teach the first part of the class - an Old Testament component - under videotape monitoring. But she banned the New Testament class, saying accounts of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be taught as secular history.
In her decision, the judge was not clear on whether the Old Testament could be taught as history, spending more time chastising the school board for bringing the matter before her in the first place.
"It is an abuse of public trust when elected officials ignore established legal standards," Kova-che-vich said. " . . . It is unfortunate that it was necessary for the court to become involved in this dispute. Both parties have able counsel available to them, and litigation of this dispute is not the most constructive use of counsel's abilities, nor is it in the best interest of Lee County."
The curriculum in question - a 30-page course outline produced in Greensboro - looks like a straight-forward list of Bible books, class activities and suggested reference books. But according to the lawsuit, the curriculum is a disguised attempt to provide students with a theological rather than academic understanding of the Bible.
Instead of teaching about the Bible by presenting it within a historical context - supplementing the text with recent scholarship and the latest archaeological findings - the curriculum basically uses the Bible as a textbook. For example, the curriculum recommends repetitive exercises so students will be able to quote the Bible at length, instead of providing challenging questions meant to unveil the Bible's complexity.
In various sections, students are told to "prepare a puppet presentation of Genesis 3"; "prepare a diary, pretending to be Noah, telling of his adventures on the ark"; and "design a coat of arms for each of the 12 disciples with symbols which represent the life and death of each."
These types of activities, the suit suggests, look more like a Sunday school lesson than a critical learning exercise - and in effect teach the Bible as secular history.
"When you're talking about presenting an objective Bible course, you're talking about looking at something much more complex than what this curriculum offers," said Tom Julin, a lawyer with Steel Hector and Davis, a Miami firm rep-resenting the seven Lee County residents. "You can't just convey the religious teachings of the faith. It has to bring critical analysis to bear."
But lawyers defending the Fort Myers curriculum say that though theirs might not be perfect, it does not advance religion.