September 16, 2002
This section on the Bible in public schools contains consensus guidelines drafted and endorsed by a broad range of 20 religious and educational groups. These guidelines are intended to reflect current law in this area, though on some questions there may be no controlling Supreme Court opinion and the lower courts may be divided. While understanding the legal framework is essential in considering the role of religion in public schools, the law will not supply answers to every question. These consensus guidelines are intended to provide direction to school boards, parents, community members, administrators, teachers and students as they work together to address issues and draft policies concerning the Bible in public schools.
Search for common ground
Ending the confusion and conflict about the Bible and public schools would be good for public education and for our nation. But finding common ground will not be easy because Americans have been divided about this issue since the early days of the common school movement.
“Bible wars” broke out in the 19th century between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Bible would be read each morning in the classroom. Lawsuits in the 1960s led to Supreme Court decisions striking down devotional Bible-reading by school officials. More recent conflicts have involved differences about the limits of student religious expression and the constitutionality of Bible courses offered in the curriculum.
Two failed models
If school districts are going to move from battleground to common ground on issues concerning the Bible in the schools, they must move beyond the extremes that often dominate the debate.
On one end of the spectrum are those who advocate what might be called the “sacred public school” where one religion (theirs) is preferred in school practices and policies. Characteristic of the early history of public education, this unconstitutional approach still survives in some school districts. (Note: There is no single Bible. There is the Jewish Bible [the Hebrew scriptures or Tanakh], and various Christian Bibles — such as Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — some with additional books, arranged in a different order. The use of the term “Bible” in this document is meant to be inclusive of the various versions and translations.)
In more recent decades, there are those on the other end of the spectrum who push for what looks to some like a “religion-free zone” where religion is largely ignored in public schools.
A third model: fairness, respect
The sponsors of this guide reject both of these models and offer another approach — one in which public schools neither inculcate nor inhibit religion but become places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.
In this third model, public schools protect the religious-liberty rights of students of all faiths and none. And schools ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion as an important part of a complete education. This is a vision of public education that is both consistent with First Amendment principles and broadly supported by many educational and religious organizations. 1
Many Americans continue to hold the mistaken view that the Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s concerning prayer and devotional Bible-reading prohibited students from expressing their faith in a public school. Actually, the Court did not eliminate prayer or the Bible from public schools; it barred state-sponsored religious practices, including devotional use of the Bible by public-school officials.
There are, of course, scriptures of other faiths that are important to millions of Americans and worthy of study in a well-balanced curriculum. The constitutional and educational guidelines offered in the FAQs apply to study about these scriptures as well.
Educators widely agree that study about religion, where appropriate, is an important part of a complete education. Part of that study includes learning about the Bible in courses such as literature and history. Knowledge of biblical stories and concepts contributes to our understanding of literature, history, law, art and contemporary society.
The advice offered in the FAQs in this section draws on this shared vision and relies on consensus statements about the role of religion in public schools under current law. 2 The focus here is on the Bible because of the need to address the conflicts and confusion surrounding the Bible in the public school curriculum.
1 See “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy,” a statement of principles sponsored by 24 religious and educational organizations. For a full text of the statement and a list of sponsors, contact the First Amendment Center.
2 See “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law,” endorsed by 35 religious and religious-liberty organizations, and “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” a directive issued by the U.S. Department of Education (call 877/433-7827 for a copy). Copies of the joint statement are available from the American Jewish Congress, 15 E. 84th St., Suite 501, New York, NY 10028.
The publication from which this section is taken, The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide, is published by:
The Bible Literacy Project Inc.
First Amendment Center
The guide has been endorsed by the following organizations:
Council on Islamic Education
People for the American Way Foundation
Union of American Hebrew Congregations