Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools? Totally Legal!

As I mentioned in a post last fall, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey intended to test Americans' religious literacy.  We didn't do very well, but Americans aren't test takers; we're visual learners.  If Hinduism would just start a YouTube channel ... 

Nonetheless, I was surprised to hear how many survey respondents--fully two-thirds--were unaware that it is legal to teach the Bible in a public school setting.  Granted, there are restrictions: teachers may lecture on the Bible--or on any other scripture, for that matter--as a literary or historical artifact, but they may not do so while promoting a particular religion. More simply, public school teachers may teach; they may not proselytize.

The development and distribution of objective religious curricula do not breach the wall that, we hope, separates church and state.

Two Supreme Court opinions in particular preserve public-school employees' right to teach the Bible.  The first, as Time's David Van Biema notes in a 2007 article, is Robert Jackson's concurring opinion in McCollum v. Board of Education (1948).  The relevant passage reads, "One can hardly respect the system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move the world society for ... which he is being prepared."  Clearly, concision is not one of Jackson's strong suits, but I digress ...

McCollum v. Board struck down an Illinois school system's "released time" program, which set aside space in public schools for religious instruction sponsored by local religious groups.  In banning "released time," the Court--through Jackson--nonetheless affirmed the importance of religious education.  (You can find the full text of the court's decision here.)

A second opinion, by Justice Thomas Clark in School District of Abington v. Schempp (1963), confirmed the exemption described by Jackson:

"It might be well said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  The Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such a study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment."

Ironically, this statement comes in the context of a Court decision asserting that "no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord's Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day."  (Again, here's the full decision.)

Simply, while the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the secular nature of the American public school system, it has consistently defended instructors' rights to teach religion--so long as that teaching is unbiased. 

Nonetheless, I wonder about my readers' opinions.  It is legal to teach scripture in public schools, but is it desirable?  Or in slightly different terms, would you approve of your child being taught the Bible in a public classroom?  Or the Bhagavad Gita?  Or, gasp, the Qur'an?

1 comment:

  1. As someone who was not raised with any particular religious affiliation, I do wish that I had a broader understanding of the Bible and other religions of the world. I completely agree with Justice Clark's (and Jackson's) position that one cannot feel fully educated in respect to world history without some basis of religious understanding. This is an area where I am woefully lacking (and a reason that I so diligently follow your blog!!).

    The difficulty comes in how it is presented. I feel that it would be a difficult task to find an instructor that is able to simply teach the historical relevancy of the world’s religions without having their own beliefs "color" the lesson.

    So, in summation... Legal? YES; Desirable? YES; Possible? hmm... I dunno.

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