Statement on The Bible in Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide

May 9, 2007

ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
April 2007

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Some schools, boards of education, and state legislatures have considered introducing courses on the Bible in public schools. In order to provide guidance on how this might be done consistently with constitutional values and requirements, a joint statement entitled The Bible in Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide [1] was prepared in 1999. The document was endorsed by a range of religion-based groups, including:

  • National Association of Evangelicals
  • Christian Legal Society
  • Christian Educators Association International
  • Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
  • Council on Islamic Education
  • National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA
  • American Jewish Committee
  • American Jewish Congress
Other endorsers, which do not promote a particular religious point of view, represent both educational and civil liberties perspectives, including:
  • People for the American Way Foundation
  • National Education Association
  • National School Boards Association
  • American Federation of Teachers
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Although the ACLU does not endorse all of the recommendations included in the document (in part because some pertain to issues on which the organization takes no position, such as which courses ought to be included in a public school curriculum), the document provides a great deal of sound guidance that, if implemented openly and conscientiously, is constitutional and will help protect schools against liability.

Those seeking to introduce Bible courses in public schools should particularly take into account the following three key principles that emerge from The Bible in Public Schools:

First, while it is constitutional for public schools to teach children about religion, it is unconstitutional to use public schools to advance particular religious beliefs. Among the important statements made in the guidelines are:
"The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional."

"The school may strive for student awareness of religions, but should not press for student acceptance of any religion."

"The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion."

"The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion." (all p. 8)

Unfortunately, some people promote "Bible education" as a disguised way of advancing their particular religious beliefs in public schools. One way for public schools to avoid being used to promote particular religious beliefs is to offer courses that teach about a broad range of the world's religions rather than courses that focus on a single religious text. While this approach is not constitutionally required, it certainly can help alleviate legitimate concerns about there being a hidden agenda to promote a particular religious tradition.

Second, the structure of the specific course curriculum, including the choice of textbooks, supporting materials, and teacher outlines, should be developed with a conscientious effort to avoid advancing particular religious beliefs.

"The Bible may be used as a primary text, although it probably should not be the only text for a course. Schools should avoid the use of instructional materials and lessons that are of a devotional nature, such as those used in Sunday school." (p. 7)

If public schools decide to teach about the Bible, the curriculum should be scrupulous in not showing favoritism for one version or religious interpretation of the Bible over another, whether Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or other.

Third, if public schools decide to offer religion or Bible courses, teachers should possess the relevant academic training and should teach the course as a proper academic subject. The teacher's educational background should not be limited to that of a particular religious tradition, but should include serious academic study of the Bible.

"When selecting teachers to teach Bible electives, school districts should look for teachers who have some background in the academic study of religion. Unless they have already received academic preparation, teachers selected to teach a course about the Bible should receive substantive in-service training from qualified scholars before being permitted to teach such courses." (p. 9)

While teachers are completely free to have deeply felt religious beliefs, it is not appropriate for them to use the classroom to advocate their religious beliefs to public school children.

* * * *

Some who promote religion and Bible courses in public schools wish to help students better understand the world in which they live and of the role that religion plays in peoples' lives. This can be done in accordance with sound constitutional values. Others promote such courses with the obvious intention of enlisting public schools to advance their particular religious beliefs. Ultimately, it should be remembered that the promotion of religious faith is the fundamental responsibility of parents, families, and religious communities — not legislatures, government offices, or public schools.


[1] Available online at:
http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/PDF/bible_guide_graphics.PDF

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