Fresh from a bruising federal court fight over the teaching of evolution, Georgia marched back into the culture wars last week when Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a bill allowing Bible classes in public high schools. An estimated 8 percent of the nation's schools offer some form of Bible study. But the Georgia law is the first to set statewide guidelines and earmark public dollars for a Bible course. Five other states are considering similar measures. Georgia's school board has until February 2007 to decide how the courses should be taught, and forces on both sides of the issue are bracing for a messy battle.
In the past, school Bible lessons were informal. Now two groups with national influence and powerful backers are offering states comprehensive curricula. Last fall the nonprofit Bible Literacy Project published "The Bible and Its Influences," a textbook endorsed by moderate Christian and Jewish groups. So far, 30 schools are teaching the pilot program, and the group says 800 schools have shown interest. Meanwhile, the National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, backed by a long list of conservative evangelicals, including Pat Robertson, says its curriculum is already taught in 353 school districts. However, if Georgia opts for either program it will be the first time that a state has officially adopted a Bible curriculum. "You can't turn a public-school classroom into a Sunday-school classroom," says Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that commissioned a report on the council curriculum. The study, written by Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, says that the program teaches the Bible from a primarily conservative Protestant view. The council says its approach is constitutional. Just in case, it offers legal aid to districts that teach it. State Sen. Tommie Williams, one of the Georgia bill's authors, used the council's curriculum as a guide when drafting his proposal. "We simply have to teach 'This is what happened—make your own judgments'," he says.
Whatever the Georgia state school board decides, observers predict a flurry of lawsuits. And Georgia teachers will once again find themselves in the cultural cross-fire.
Can you say - separation of church & state? Apparently not if you're the Gov of Georgia!