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By DOUG GROSS, Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA - Georgia's public schools walk a delicate line as they decide whether to offer the nation's first state-funded Bible classes — measuring the difference between preaching and teaching with the likelihood of costly lawsuits looming for those that miss the mark.

The state school board approved curriculum in March for teaching the Bible in Georgia's high schools, but there hasn't been a rush of schools to start up the classes. Only a handful of the state's 180 school districts have agreed to offer the elective classes so far.

"It has been a very thoughtful, healthy process," said Robin Pennock, deputy schools superintendent of Muscogee County, where the school board decided to offer the Old Testament and New Testament classes next fall. "Most people do realize that this is an area that many people can feel very passionate about."

It's difficult to confirm how many school boards have adopted or are considering the classes. However, Muscogee — which borders Alabama and includes the city of Columbus and the Army's Fort Benning — is one of the state's largest districts to have done so.

"It's important to understand religion; it's something we've gotten too far away from," said Jan Pease, whose 15-year-old daughter attends Northside High School in Columbus.

The Bible already is incorporated into comparative religion and other public school classes in many states, but those classes are funded by the local districts, not with money from state government.

The Georgia law allowing the state-funded Bible classes won overwhelming approval last year from both Democrat and Republican lawmakers. The classes must be taught "in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."

Lawmakers in Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas have considered similar plans this year, although none has received final approval. One proposal in Texas would require all high school students to take a Bible class.

Supporters say fully understanding history, literature and political science — from the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to the war in Iraq — requires knowledge of the Bible.

"I don't think you can understand Shakespeare, that you can understand a great deal of literary allusions or that you can understand a great deal of Western civilization without understanding the role of the Bible," said Pennock, a former Western civilization teacher.

The Rev. Charles Hasty, of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, said he hopes exposure to the Bible's teachings may lead some students to seek out a more spiritual approach in their lives.

"It's going to challenge the faith of some students and it may foster the faith of others," Hasty said.

Critics fear the classes could easily turn into endorsements of Christianity.

"Georgia has set teachers up for failure," said Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, a Washington D.C.-based civil liberties group. "The chances of it being unconstitutional are pretty big and the pitfalls are huge."

His group supports religious discussions and study of the Bible in public schools, but Haynes says Georgia's law fails to give enough guidance to teachers on the difference between academic study and spiritual teaching.

No additional training for teachers is required, although Barrow and Muscogee counties, which both will offer the classes, plan to give teachers an online course and other special preparation.

Haynes said the lack of direction in state law makes schools vulnerable to lawsuits if students feel religion is being endorsed.

"People are going to sue," he said. "That's why the Legislature should have been more responsible about putting school boards in situations where they might have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, split their communities and end up in a courtroom."

The First Amendment Center and Georgia's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union both say they plan to monitor how the classes are taught.

Concern about violating the separation of church and state is a reason why some of Georgia's largest districts have steered clear of the classes so far.

"We have to be very careful with that," said Joe Buck, chairman of the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education. His school system has made no move yet to consider the classes.

Pease, a Christian, said she'd support schools teaching comparative religion classes, including those that studied the holy books of other major faiths like Islam's Quran.

"I don't think any particular religion needs to be pushed on anyone," she said. "But I do think it's important to teach about them."

I'm intrigued. While I really like the idea of a scholarly approach to biblical teaching, I am cynical about it's not being presented in a comparative-religions sense as I think that really pushes it as "the one true book", being a primary motivational force behind western civilization, et al.

Even if it is limited to scholarly issues within that context, the area between scholarship and spititual teaching is wide and very gray, and even if the teachers are well-conditioned, are the high school students of sufficient emotional maturity to understand the difference?

Worth some discussion, I think.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 1st, 2007 10:39 pm (UTC)
Wow... I would agree that looking at the holy books of all religions could be a class worth taking and could lead to some interesting discussion, if it is just the Bible the Christian holy book, then No... It will by default push a religion on the kids.

May. 1st, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
I could see a class something like the Bible's influence on western literature, but that's a lot more of a college level class than high school.
May. 1st, 2007 11:38 pm (UTC)
Perhaps a comparative between the King James version and the NIV version? Or perhaps a course that compares known history with that presented in the bible.

But shh you'll wake the Christians....
May. 2nd, 2007 12:50 am (UTC)
I have found that the more one actually reads the Bible, the more one is amazed that xtians believe that tripe.
May. 2nd, 2007 02:23 am (UTC)
I cannot see how this isn't completely breaking the state/church law. Honestly. If they aren't presenting other religious texts in a similar way, this is just a veiled attempt at forcing religion down the throats of students. Fucking figures that Texas is the first state to decide to make it a requirement!!! I am so very glad that my mom decided not to raise me there!!!

That is such a load of B.S. that one cannot "understand" historical happenings in the U.S. without being versed on the Bible!!! What. The. Fuck?? I am going to jump on the bandwagon to fight this stuff. Immediately.
May. 2nd, 2007 02:52 am (UTC)

We were all over the Bible in art, lit, and history class discussions. I think people who haven't studied it are missing out on a lot of American/European culture.
May. 2nd, 2007 11:44 am (UTC)
I went to Augsburg College. Because it's a Lutheran school, students are required to take 3 religion courses one of which is Biblical Studies. I thoroughly enjoyed the class as it also covered the history and social context of the region.

The other religion courses I took were World Religions and Theology of the Reformers, both excellent classes. We also had a cultural perspective requirement for which I took Intro to Islam. Frankly, I think all school kids should be required to take some type of World Religions class to give them a better understanding of the world around them.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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