by William Fisher
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Despite lnumerous court setbacks and challenges from civil liberties organizations, right-wing Christian groups are stepping up efforts to introduce the Bible into public school classrooms, saying it already is used as a textbook in 300 school districts nationwide.
The campaign seems to have gained significant momentum as the influence of the religious right has increased in the Republican Party over the past decade, and particularly since the 2004 presidential election of George W. Bush.
Key players in the effort include the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, (NCBCPS), a major provider of Bible teaching materials based in the southeastern state of North Carolina.
"The program is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students," said Elizabeth Ridenour, the organization's president. "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."
Civil liberties organizations took a decidedly different view. If sectarian teaching, in this case Christian, takes root in U.S. public schools this will imperil constitutional safeguards designed to protect all faiths by separating church and state, they warned.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter in the southern state of Florida brought the first legal challenge to the introduction of the Bible into publicly funded education by suing a local school board. A settlement was reached when the school board agreed to replace its Bible course with a "secular, objective, and neutral" curriculum, to use a college-level critical analysis of biblical scholarship, and to permit monitoring of its classes by audiotape for approximately one year.
"While the Bible has a place in the public schools as part of a genuinely secular course of education, it cannot be taught as literal history," Howard Simon, the civil rights watchdog's executive director, told IPS. "The Bible is a sacred text, not a history text."
Another advocacy group, People for the American Way, agrees. Judith Schaeffer, the group's deputy legal director, said "this and other similar groups want to introduce only one version of the Bible, The King James version of the New Testament, ignoring the many versions accepted by others. Furthermore, they want to present this one version as history. It is not history."
Ridenour, at the bible curriculum group, said her organization's class, which students elect but are not required to take and which is called The Bible in History and Literature, "examines many aspects you wouldn't expect to find in a Sunday school class such as how the Bible influenced America's founding fathers, art, music and literature, including Shakespeare." She referred to the King James version of the New Testament.
The separation of church and state is one of the cardinal principles embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. Two clauses in this section of the Bill of Rights, as the first ten amendments are known, guarantee freedom of religion. The 'establishment clause' prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or favour one religion over another. It enforces the separation of church and state. The 'free exercise clause' prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person's practice of their religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld the teaching of the Bible as literature, as long as it is not employed for devotional purposes or indoctrination.
That, Ridenour said, is her organization's goal. Opponents contended the opposite is true.
Said Simon: "If you adopt a curriculum that disguises Bible stories suitable for Sunday school as literal history; if you try to address moral and character development by simply proselytising young people with sectarian religious views; if you dismiss the constitutional requirements of separation of church and state in the public schools as a mere fiction of a tyrannical judiciary, you too will ineptly end up in court."
Civil liberties groups routinely write to school boards that have been asked to make Bible teaching part of their normal curricula. Their letters refer to court decisions upholding separation of church and state, and limitations placed on these courses by various courts. Most school boards are grateful for the guidance and reject the curriculum proposed by organizations like the bible curriculum council, these advocates said.
But Ridenour said that some 1,000 high schools in 35 states are using her organization's material in classes held during regular school hours and that 93 percent of all school boards it has approached have accepted the curriculum.
"This paradigm shift is not only taking place in the Bible Belt (states traditionally considered very religious) but in school districts in Alaska, California, across the board to Pennsylvania and down to Florida," her organization said in a statement.
It declined to provide a list of the school districts in which its course materials are being used.
Ridenour founded the bible curriculum council in 1993. Her work has been endorsed by most of the better-known Christian fundamentalist and evangelical personalities and groups. She is a member of the highly secretive Council on National Policy (CNP), founded in 1981 as an umbrella organization of right-wing leaders who gather regularly to map strategy, share ideas, and fund causes and candidates to advance agendas of which council approves.
Last year, the group gave an unannounced award to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a conservative from Tennessee who may seek the Republican nomination for president in 2008.
The bible curriculum council's board of directors includes a number of prominent members of the religious right. Among them is its general counsel, Steve Crampton, who has said he believes that existing U.S. tax laws that prohibit not-for-profit organizations, including religious groups, from advocating particular political candidates or parties, "leaves churches unduly muzzled."
The organization's extensive advisory board includes conservative members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, numerous state legislators, and large financial donors.
The council blamed a 1963 court decision -- which it said was when "the Bible largely was removed from classrooms" -- for what it termed "dramatic increases in unwed pregnancies, cases of sexually transmitted diseases, violent behavior, and other social factors."
May 6, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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