Monday, December 26, 2005 View Comments
By BARBARA NOVOVITCH
ODESSA, Tex., - Trustees of the Ector County Independent School District here decided, 4 to 2, that high school students would use a course published by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools for studying the Bible in history and literature.
The council is a religious advocacy group in Greensboro, N.C., and has the backing of the Eagle Forum, a conservative organization.
The vote on the disputed textbook, for an elective Bible study course, has not ended the matter. Critics say the book promotes fundamentalist Protestant Christianity.
The district superintendent, Wendell Sollis, said Wednesday that he had recommended the textbook over a newer one by the Bible Literacy Project, published this year through the Freedom Forum and an ecumenical group of scholars and endorsed by a group of religious organizations.
"I felt like the National Council was a better fit for Odessa, because they're on several campuses here in Texas and because of their longevity," Mr. Sollis said.
David Newman, a professor of English at Odessa College, said he planned to sue the district because the curriculum advocated a fundamentalist Christian point of view.
The school board president, Randy Rives, said of the curriculum, which uses the King James Version of the Bible: "If you're going to teach something, it's better to use the source. I have complete confidence that we can teach this within the parameters of the law."
Professor Newman said, "If the beliefs of others don't match theirs, then the beliefs of others are irrelevant."
Last summer, the Texas Freedom Network, which promotes religious freedoms, asked a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University, Mark A. Chancey, to examine the council course. Dr. Chancey said it had factual errors, promoted creationism and taught that the Constitution was based on Scripture.
A district trustee here, Carol Gregg, said she favored the Bible Literacy Project because it was "more user friendly toward teachers" and "more respectful of minority and majority" religious views.
Unlike the competing curriculum, it mentions several versions of the Bible.
Critics fear Bible classes erode line between church, state
Publisher: The Dallas Morning News
The hardscrabble town of Odessa on the West Texas oil patch famous for its obsession with high school football is becoming the new ground zero in a culture war.
The Ector County Independent School District unanimously approved an elective course in biblical literacy in April, an action underscoring the marked increase of such "Bible study" classes nationally. Constitutional scholars are concerned that these classes constitute a subtle erosion of what they see as the traditional and necessary wall of separation between church and state.
More than 300 school districts in 35 states use course material offered by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, said its president, Elizabeth Ridenour.
The North Carolina-based organization offers courses in biblical study in public schools as part of its commitment to restore religious and civil liberties in the nation. The council's board of directors and advisers draws heavily on such religious conservatives as evangelist Ben Kinchloe of television's "The 700 Club" and David Barton, a prominent conservative author and speaker on church-state separation.
"The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children," Ridenour wrote in a welcoming message on the organization's Web site.
Odessa school officials say they are walking a narrow path to ensure the proposed course meets educational and constitutional requirements.
"This will be an academic elective on biblical literacy, not a devotional," said Odessa Superintendent Wendell Sollis. "We have no intention of proselytizing. ... You really have to educate people about what you can and can't do."
But assurances that the course will be voluntary and non-devotional have done little to allay the fears of non-Christians and religious moderates that the class may evolve into the covert preaching of God's word.
"There's an awful lot of people in this town convinced that they're going to get Jesus taught in the classroom, a tool for evangelism. And that concerns people like me," said David Newman, an English professor at Odessa College who opposes the new Bible course. He is Jewish.
"If they want to teach the biblical influences on culture and art, why not make it a traditional humanities course that examines all the influences on Western culture?" he asked. "If I see this thing becoming more of an advocacy course, I can assure you there will certainly be legal action taken."
While relations between Odessa's 150 Christian churches and its non-Christian minority are good, Newman said his 12-year-old daughter has been subjected to some anti-Jewish statements from classmates.
"They'll ask her why 'your people' killed Jesus. Or if she knows that Jesus is her savior," Newman said. "I don't think it's hate. It's just kids being kids. But I worry what will happen if a pronounced Christian viewpoint is taught in the class."
Alfred Brophy, a University of Alabama law professor who teaches American legal history, said Odessa may reflect a new battleground for religious conservatives who complain God has been taken out of the nation's public schools.
"This is ground zero in the next culture war," Brophy said. "They're introducing a religious curriculum into the schoolhouse, but it's subtle. It's the camel's nose poking under the tent."
John Waggoner began organizing a petition drive in Odessa this year to develop a high school Bible course. He said he was not prepared for the results. By April, his group had obtained more than 6,000 signatures.
Waggoner said he and two friends began the drive out of a grass-roots interest in bringing legal Bible study to the classroom. Once they went public, they were supported by a cross-section of the community. "We just tapped into something people are very passionate about," he said.
"I don't mean to be flippant, but when people ask why we want a Bible course in the schools, I ask, 'Why not?'" Waggoner said. "The Bible is such a foundation of all that we have in this country, it just makes sense to educate our children about it."
But Waggoner is aware of the opposition to the class.
"Sure, we understand their concerns. We know these are good people who just disagree with what we're doing. I just think they're wrong," he said. "This will be the most heavily moderated course in the school's history. There will be no proselytizing. We don't want to subject this school district to a constitutional conflict.
Though no course curriculum has been picked, Waggoner said his group favors the curriculum designed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.
"We invited the council's lawyer to speak to the school board on the constitutionality of the issue, and we know the council's curriculum has already been approved in Texas," he said. "Our hope is that ... we'll continue to have a seat at the table as the board picks a curriculum."
Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners he'd stand with Odessa schools against the American Civil Liberties Union _ even though the ACLU hasn't joined the fray. School officials have been swamped with interview requests and hundreds of phone calls and e-mails _ some accusing them of violating the Constitution and others thanking them for putting the Bible back in the classroom.
The district last offered a Bible class in 1979.
Roughly 80 percent of the schools using the national council's Bible course are small or rural districts, according to Ridenour, the group's president.
"It's not just gone into the Bible Belt states. It's gone into Alaska, Pennsylvania, California," Ridenour said. "We've already had over 170,000 students take the course nationwide. It's never been legally challenged."
Ridenour stressed that the curriculum is designed to help students understand the Bible in the context of its influence on culture and the arts. She emphasized it is not a course in Bible devotion.
"You wouldn't learn this in Sunday school class," she said. "How in the world could you understand what's going on in the Middle East today without introducing the Bible and understanding the background? How can they understand Michelangelo's Moses or Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper without knowing about the figures that inspired those works of art?"
Ridenour said supporters of non-Christian faiths could approach a school board and go through the same process as the council.
"Now the Quran has not had the influence on our society, of course, that the Bible has and our founding fathers didn't base things on the Quran," she said. "But it's a free country if anyone would like to approach the school board."
Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director of the People for the American Way Foundation, said her group plans to monitor the case to see if the curriculum Odessa adopts is constitutional.
"We have no problem with the board's vote the other night," she said. "It puts it on our radar screen in the sense that we hope they will do this the right way."
Schaeffer said her organization is aware that the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools is "running around the country trying to get school boards to adopt their material for these courses."
Ridenour said her organization does not solicit school districts to carry their curriculum. "If people in the district, if it's on their hearts to do this, they'll call us."
The curriculum has not been challenged in court.
Schaeffer said another potential problem for school districts is finding instructors that are "academically competent" to teach what is often a lightning-rod topic.
"You really shouldn't be teaching the Bible in public schools," she said, "unless you have teachers who are qualified to do so."
Earlier this year, schools in Michigan decided not to use the council's Bible curriculum.
In January, the school board in Frankenmuth, Mich., ended a yearlong debate by turning down the council curriculum as "not academically rigorous enough." Frankenmuth Superintendent Michael Murphy told board members, "It goes beyond talking about religion and becomes faith-based."
K.K. Brannies, assistant superintendent of the Brady Independent School District in Texas, said her district has offered the council curriculum since the late 1990s as an elective and has had no complaints.
She is surprised that the course is offered in 49 districts in Texas and that more are considering it because the opportunity to offer electives is dwindling as course requirements increase.
However, she said she does not see the course "as something that will really continue heavily just because of the fact there are so few opportunities for any elective classes," Brannies said. "When we get to the new science requirements, the chances of us having to do away with it are probably good at some point just because kids won't have room for as many electives in their schedule."
Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network, a statewide nonprofit group formed to protect religious freedom and individual liberties, said there is no inherent problem with studying religion in school.
She cautioned, however, that schools may unintentionally end up promoting a particular religion in the classroom and violate the principles of religious freedom.
"I think the danger here is that this Bible class could turn a public school classroom into a Sunday school classroom," Miller said. "Many school boards have rejected the curriculum because they feared the controversy around it, because they feared that it did possibly put them in an untenable position."
The test of a Bible literacy course in Odessa, however, lies with the kids.
Angie, 17, a senior at Permian High School, won't benefit from the proposed Bible course. But she would take it if she could. "I don't think it would hurt anyone to study about God's word," she said.
Across the parking lot, Ray, a junior, is noncommittal. "It's OK, I guess. But there's already a lot we have to get done for graduation; there's not much room for electives. It's like we'd have to choose between football, more science or the Bible."
Their last names were not used because neither student would give a contact number for their parents.
Nearby, Patricia Clark waited outside Permian High to pick up her daughter, Natasha, 16. Clark supports the idea of a Bible class.
"It'll be a good thing, something positive," Clark said. "I'm glad to see it happen."
Her daughter has another view.
"She hasn't said she'd be interested in taking it," Clark said. "We've talked about it, and she just rolls her eyes."