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Bible showdown in Odessa could have Texas-sized impact

By Charles C. Haynes

Emotions are running high in Odessa, Texas, over a lawsuit filed May 16 challenging a Bible course taught in two local public schools — including Permian High School of “Friday Night Lights” fame.

If there’s one thing that inspires more devotion than football in West Texas, it’s the Bible. But promoting the religion of football in schools is perfectly legal — promoting the religion of the Bible is not.

School officials in Ector County (where Odessa is located) claim to understand the difference. They insist that the Bible elective is academically sound and thus constitutionally permissible.

Some Odessa citizens insist otherwise. According to the complaint filed by eight local parents (Moreno v. Ector County Independent School District), the Bible course presents “the Bible from a singular religious point of view that might be appropriate for Sunday school but has no place in public schools.” The parents are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way Foundation.

The lawsuit alleges that the course teaches the King James Version of the Bible as literal, historical truth and promotes a conservative Protestant understanding of the text. Interpretations from other Christian or Jewish perspectives — and the views of most Biblical scholars — are ignored or disparaged.

Far more is at stake in this case than a couple of Bible classes in Odessa. That’s because the material used in the course is produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a North Carolina-based organization supported by many conservative Christian advocacy groups.

The National Council’s Web site claims that its curriculum “has been voted into 382 school districts in 37 states.” Although these numbers are impossible to confirm (as the council won’t reveal locations), it is clear from news reports (and calls I get) that this curriculum is sparking controversy in a growing number of communities. A legal setback in Ector County could put the brakes on the National Council’s efforts nationwide.

Odessa could have avoided this costly lawsuit by choosing an alternative curriculum. In fact, the Bible curriculum committee created by the local school board favored “The Bible and Its Influence,” a textbook published by the Bible Literacy Project (disclosure: I was one of 41 scholars who reviewed drafts of this textbook). Some evangelical leaders (supporters of the National Council) have attacked this text, while others, such as Chuck Colson, have praised it. But legal experts agree that it’s constitutionally sound.

The Ector County superintendent and board ignored the committee and decided to adopt the National Council’s approach. The lawsuit alleges that the decision was motivated by a religious agenda, not a bona fide educational objective.

Similar clashes pitting the National Council’s material against “The Bible and Its Influence” have broken out in other school districts and even in a few state legislatures. Last year, after a Democratic-Republican tug-of-war over the two curriculums, the Georgia Legislature passed a “Bible bill” providing state support for Bible electives using language that encourages the National Council’s approach.

And last week the Texas Legislature sent a bill to the governor that would encourage Bible electives — although unlike the Georgia legislation it has some safeguards, such as a requirement that teachers undergo training before teaching the course.

As Bible electives proliferate, so will conflicts over how to teach them. That’s why the Odessa case looms so large. If this Bible course is declared unconstitutional, school districts thinking about adopting their own will have to work harder to make sure they get it right.

Lawsuits can be ugly, divisive and expensive — and should be a last resort. But when school officials try to turn a classroom into a church, sometimes it takes a judge to draw the First Amendment line.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

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