Bible in Public Schools
ACLU Successfully Helps Parents Challenge Bible Classes in Texas Public Schools
The ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief scored a resounding victory on March 5, 2008, when it settled a highly-publicized lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a curriculum used in a bible course taught in a west Texas public school district. The settlement agreement not only mandates that the unconstitutional curriculum not be used after the current school year, but it also halts the efforts of the curriculum's developer – the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) – to get its biased curriculum into as many public school districts as it can.
In December 2005, the Ector County School Board in Texas voted to adopt an elective Bible course, called "The Bible in History and Literature." The course is now taught in two high schools in Odessa, Texas — Permian High School and Odessa High School. Rather than teaching about the Bible objectively in a historical or literary context, the course promotes religion, as well as a particular religious viewpoint, that is not shared by Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and many Protestants. The course uses the King James Version as its main textbook, which is not the Bible of choice for a wide range of Christian denominations, nor for members of the Jewish faith. On May 16, 2007, the ACLU, ACLU of Texas, People For the American Way Foundation and the law firm of Jenner & Block, LLP, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of eight parents in Odessa, Texas, against the Ector County school board. The parents say the course violates their religious liberty by promoting particular religious beliefs to children in their community. Some of the parents have children who have graduated from these high schools and some have children who will soon enter them.
"Parents, not public schools, should teach religious beliefs to children," says Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, Director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Governments and public schools have no business deciding which religious beliefs are true and then using public schools to proselytize children."
The NCBCPS course has been deeply criticized by Bible scholars for its lack of accuracy, ignorance of scholarly research, and biased promotion of a particular religious interpretation of the Bible.
"It's important to remember that the Bible could be taught constitutionally in schools," says Gunn. "Bible education per se is not unconstitutional if the course is designed to be objective." But according to Gunn, it's hard to learn anything about the classes in the first place, because the NCBCPS is incredibly secretive its course materials. "If you try to figure out who's the author of this document, there's no author given. If you try to order a copy of the textbook on-line they won't let you do that. They say you have to call them. They say that it's being taught in many public schools across the country, but if you ask them the question, well where is it being taught? They won't answer the question."
The lawsuit asked that the Ector County School Board be ordered to refrain from teaching the Bible course or any course like it that would unconstitutionally promote religion or particular religious beliefs. This week's settlement ensures that will be so.