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Positive Atheism Forum
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Bible Class Taught In
Virginia Public Schools

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June 4, 2000

Last year, the Freedom Forum, in association with several Fundamentalist groups, approved a scenario promoting the use of the Bible in public school classrooms, as long as it is part of a comprehensive picture and is not taught as doctrine or religion. Positive Atheism opposed this move, predicting that it would soon be abused to allow the promotion of the Christian religion. We eventually removed Freedom Forum's link from our Web Guide, and sent the Forum a statement explaining our move. American Atheists also vigorously opposed Freedom Forum's recommendation.

Now, PAM's and AA's most dire predictions have come true (and how quickly did this happen!). A public school in Virginia now teaches a Bible class, and supporters are worried that "outsiders" might come in and take their "rights" away. Please read the following Washington Post article; we welcome your comments.

Cliff Walker, Publisher
Positive Atheism Magazine

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Bible's Second Coming
by Craig Timberg
Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, June 4, 2000; Page A01

CHILHOWIE, Virginia -- Derrek Martin's worn black Bible is a source of inspiration to him, God's own word revealed and true. And for a few months at the public high school here in this Southwest Virginia town, it was also his textbook.

Martin, 18, and the 41 other students who have completed Bible history courses at Chilhowie High School are part of a national experiment aimed at returning the Bible to public schools decades after educators, fearing the wrath of the United States Supreme Court, tossed it out.

A growing number of educators and interest groups agree that teaching about the Bible and other religious texts is vital to a well-rounded education. But watchdog groups argue that such courses can tread perilously close to government-sponsored religious indoctrination, which the Unirted States Constitution forbids. The line is thin, they say, between teaching about the Bible and teaching from the Bible.

The controversy is a bit of a mystery to Martin and his classmates. This town of 2,000 is square in the Bible Belt. The principal of Chilhowie High says not only are there no Muslims, Hindus or Jews to offend; among 440 students, there is not a single Catholic.

To Martin, who plans to attend a Bible college in the fall, nothing could be more natural than high school classes on the Old and New Testaments. He attended with several friends from his youth group at Chilhowie Baptist Church, and teaching the class was his youth pastor there, added part time to the high school faculty.

"I definitely learned as much in that class as I learned in my whole life about the Bible," Martin said.

The class memorized the names and order of the Bible's books and completed a chart detailing the 36 miracles attributed to Jesus. Students wrote in a journal for 10 minutes a day about the meaning of Bible passages and took exams with such problems as, "List the six proofs that the Bible is God's word." And "God is supreme ruler and has given man a free choice. This shows that God is: (A) Omniscient, (B) Good, (C) Sovereign, (D) Merciful."

As for the Bible's literal truth -- Jesus walking on water, Moses parting the Red Sea -- there was no disclaimer, no debate.

"I don't think there was anybody in the class who ever questioned it ... whether those things happened or not," Martin said.

If they did, their teacher, Fred Conley, was ready with an answer.

"The Bible says [Jesus] was born of a virgin; that's how we teach that," he explained one recent evening in his office at Chilhowie Baptist. "They [the school board] chose this as the textbook," he added, putting his left hand on his own worn Bible. "So when it comes to teaching what could be debatable issues, you just go with what the textbook says."

The National Bible Association and the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University issued a report on "The Bible and Public Schools" providing guidelines on how to offer "objective, academic" courses about religion without violating the Constitution. Among the conclusions were that public schools should teach about religion but that history courses using the Bible as the main textbook are hard to keep within constitutional bounds.

"Most Bible electives being taught in the South right now are probably unconstitutional," said Charles C. Haynes, of the First Amendment Center. "There hasn't been a strong tradition in most of these states of doing it right.... Evangelicals don't want kids to know there's all this scholarly debate about things that they consider revealed truth."

But the teenagers taking the course in Chilhowie believe there's another reason most public schools in and around cities such as Washington don't teach the Bible.

"The nation has gotten so far away from God that they don't want to hear it," said Mike Martin, also 18 and not a relative of Derrek Martin.

The students and teachers here are wary pioneers, enthusiastic about their program but afraid that outsiders will seek to shut it down. Their fears are not baseless. For in teaching the Bible, Chilhowie High has stepped into one of the nation's most enduring battles, between those who seek to keep religion out of public schools and those who believe no education is complete without it.

Advocates call the Bible a foundational text of Western history, art and literature and say students today routinely miss or misunderstand biblical references. Teachers are reluctant to explain, they say, out of fear of provoking a lawsuit.

Courses on the Bible remain rare but are growing more popular, particularly in southeastern states. The push for them is being led by a North Carolina-based group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which reports there are elective Bible classes in 116 school districts in 29 states, including Maryland and Virginia.

The group, saying it fears unwanted publicity for the schools, refuses to name the districts where courses on the Bible are taught, but Surry County, southeast of Richmond, plans to teach a Bible history and literature class next year, based in part on material provided by the national council.

Carroll County, Maryland, outside Baltimore, has taught an elective high school course called "The Bible in Literature and in Art" for two decades with little controversy. Watchdog groups say classes on the Bible as literature are more easily kept within constitutional bounds than ones teaching the Bible as history because literary interpretations don't depend on the literal truth of a text.

Smyth County, home to Chilhowie and one other high school teaching Bible classes, has based its one-semester elective history courses on the Old and New Testaments on the curriculum written by the national council.

That curriculum, said Elizabeth Ridenour, president of the national council, is crafted to remain within the law, and she expressed frustration at the controversy that has often dogged her group's efforts.

"We go way beyond the call of duty making sure there's no indoctrination," she said. "How can anybody be against an elective course teaching the greatest book in all time?"

But First Amendment groups say it's not that simple. In 1997, People For the American Way, based in Washington, and the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued a Florida school district that was using a curriculum based on the national council's, forcing changes. The Georgia attorney general warned against similar courses in that state.

The Bible classes have met with little controversy in Chilhowie, where a visitor coming off Interstate 81 is greeted by a picture of giant praying hands hanging from a Christian bookstore. The community is so stable that four of five Chilhowie students have at least one parent who attended the high school, says Principal H. Wayne Trivette.

But Christian activists in town trace a broad moral decline to the Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 abolishing teacher-led prayer and devotional Bible reading in public school. They say those decisions have led to higher crime, growing disrespect for elders and soaring rates of drug abuse and abortions.

"Even here, it's very obvious. You can't keep violence and drugs from even the remotest areas," said Margaret Reasor, who led the effort to bring the Bible courses to Smyth County after learning of similar efforts elsewhere while at a national religious conference several years ago.

"We need to equip our kids with the means to distinguish right and wrong."

That seems to have worked, say those who have taken the Bible course. "The purpose was to study it, like you would any other book," said Chilhowie student Justin Grinstead, 18. "But you couldn't help but grow spiritually."

Yet even in Chilhowie, some worry that a Bible class in a public school can easily cross the line, offering too much moral and spiritual guidance.

Trivette, the high school principal, has decided to replace Conley after two years of teaching the Bible courses. Although Conley never crossed the line into preaching, Trivette said, he worried about Conley's dual role as teacher and youth pastor. The new teacher will be a full-time member of the social studies faculty who took some Bible courses in college.

"I don't care how good you are; if you teach history, some of your idealism and beliefs are going to seep in," Trivette said. "I would consider this the middle of the Bible Belt, which is good in some ways because it gives these kids a belief system.

"You have to be careful that someone doesn't lead them," he added. "They're very malleable at this point."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company
[Unitetd States Copyright law allows the use of this and similar
material, by groups that do not profit from their services,
for educational and discussion purposes. -- PAM Editor.]

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