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When Worldviews Collide:
The Issue of a Bible History Class 
 in the Lee County Public Schools
by Connie Holzinger 
The Lee County public school system is engaged in a culture war (Ehman), a collision of worldviews, over the introduction of a Bible history class.  It is a battle waged with holy zeal by the religious right, and it is fought against what they see as the evil forces of secular humanism, New Age philosophy, and other enemies of God, church, and family.  When worldviews collide, there is no compromise; there is only victory or defeat. 

The initial salvo in this culture war was fired on March 26, 1996, when four of five members of the Lee County School Board voted to empanel a citizens' committee to develop a Bible history elective for our public high schools.  Local religious right groups had spent several years assiduously laying the groundwork, so the outcome of this opening skirmish was preordained.  The persistence of the religious right has met with increasing resistance by their opponents, which has thrust the Lee County battle onto a national media platform.  
The fall 1996 Lee County school board election in which a leader of the local Christian Coalition was elected to the school board was a result of this careful preparation.  The board quickly began the implementation of a religious right educational agenda:  ousting a superintendent for "philosophical" differences, banning calculators in primary grades, courting Texas textbook "reviewers" Mel and Norma Gabler, entertaining a board presentation by the Charlotte County anti-abortion group Freedom to Learn, criticizing federal initiatives such as School-to-Work, and now adding a Bible history elective to the course offerings. 

For background I have read many print and online articles published by various groups from all points on the political compass:  Eagle Forum, Interfaith Alliance, Christian Coalition, First Amendment Center, Heritage Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Citizens for Excellence in Education, and People for the American Way.  I read University of North Carolina professor Warren Nord's 1995 book, Religion & American Education:  Rethinking a National Dilemma.  I also read parts of Finding Common Ground:  A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education by Charles C. Haynes of The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.  Both Nord and Haynes advocate teaching about religion in the public schools, and they are recognized national experts.  I read portions of Mark Gerzon's 1996 book, A House Divided:  Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul.  Gerzon divides Americans into six "states", and the religious right fits neatly into his "Patrian" state.  I have also read quite a few conservative Christian books such as Mel and Norma Gabler's What are They Teaching Our Children? and How to Elect Christians to Public Office by Robert L. Simonds, President of Citizens for Excellence in Education. 

Finally I talked to five local experts on this issue:  Lee County School Board Member Katherine Boren, attorney Herbert A. Fried, minority-view Bible curriculum committee member Mark Ehman Ph.D., majority-view Bible curriculum committee member Mary Carmack Williams, and Director of Course and Faculty Development at Florida Gulf Coast University and former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum of the Lee School District, Harriet Bohannon, Ph.D. 

The implementation of this Bible history class has captured the attention of the entire community.  It is dividing citizens  and diverting attention and resources from the many problems our district faces.  Fully one-half of Lee County property taxes are earmarked for public education, 6,000 Lee Countians are employed by the district, and 53,000 children attend Lee County public schools.  Public education can make a tremendous impact in the life of an individual child, but it is also of vital importance to the entire society.  A nation's political, moral, technological, economic, cultural, and military strength depend upon a strong educational system.  Good schools which enjoy public support and confidence are vital to the health and welfare of a community. 
American public schools are currently under relentless, and often unfair, attack from the religious right.  The aim of these critics is not to improve public education, but to destroy it. They want to replace "government schooling" with homeschooling or private sectarian schooling funded by taxpayers.  They claim that public schools, under the thrall of ultra-liberal teachers' unions, are promoting humanism:  a belief system "that man, not God, determines values, and that these values are based upon  prevailing circumstances" (Gabler, Humanism 1).  In part, they justify the teaching of such topics as Bible history or "creation science" as issues of fairness—attempts to counter anti-Godly humanism.  There is an irony in wanting incompetent, unionized, humanist, government school teachers to teach their children Bible history. 

The Bible history class recently approved by a majority on the Lee County School Board is merely a local manifestation of this larger national issue.  The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, the Greensboro, North Carolina group which designed one part of the curriculum adopted by the board, claims its course guide is used in over twenty states ("Bible Class"); however, neither that, nor the fact it hasn't been challenged, means it is a legal class (Fried).  I will examine how the Establishment Clause restricts the teaching  
of religion in public schools and explain why I have come to the conclusion this particular class violates the First Amendment and cannot be taught legally in Lee County or any other public school district.  It is my opinion this curriculum will not survive a legal challenge, and if pursued to the Supreme Court it will be declared unconstitutional. 

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution is interpreted "to require neutrality between religion and nonreligion, not just between various Protestant or Christian sects" (Nord 129).  Until 1940 this amendment did not pertain to the states, but Cantwell v. Connecticut, which applied the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the First,  changed that (Nord 110).  The Establishment Clause does not allow a governmental agency such as a school board to teach a sectarian religious class, one that promotes either one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.  The 1971 case of Lemon v Kurtzman provides the "Lemon Test" for determining when the line between church and state has been breached.  First, the class must have a secular purpose; second, the primary effect must neither advance or inhibit religion; and finally, there must be no excessive entanglement of government and religion (Nord 117). 
Teaching the Bible as history would cross that line.  The proponents of this class have given ample evidence over the past eighteen months that the proposed curriculum has the sectarian perspective of fundamentalist Christianity.  The first piece of evidence is the fact that the course was devised by a fundamentalist Christian organization, the aforementioned National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.  This organization's curricula for the Old and New Testaments treat events in the Bible, including Creation and the Resurrection, as historical.  The very fact they refer to their two courses as Old and New Testament is sectarian.  The Jews don't call their Bible the Old Testament, and to do so implies that the Hebrew Bible does not stand on its own. 
Many Christians, and certainly most people of other faiths, consider Biblical accounts such as the Creation or Noah to be metaphorical, not historical; therefore presenting them as literal history is ipso facto sectarian.  Proponents such as school board member Lanny Moore have repeatedly answered questions pertaining to Biblical inerrancy such as, "Jonah lived in the belly of the whale?" and, "Jesus turned water into wine?" in the affirmative ("NBC"), so it will be difficult to deny the district plans to teach the Bible history class as literal history.  In a NPR interview of students at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where a modified version of the National Council curriculum is being taught, one of the students expressed confusion over the two separate Creation accounts which appear in Genesis, but he did not doubt that one of them was factually true ("Bible Class"). 

It would be impossible to apply historical methods to the Creation or many other Biblical events in the way one would examine the Battle of Bull Run.  Mary Williams, a conservative member of the Bible committee said during our interview, "Evolution is no more provable than Jonah and the Whale."  I would argue that although neither event had eyewitnesses, evolution does stand up to scientific methodology and scrutiny, Jonah and the Whale does not meet equivalent historical standards.  Sacred history is a matter of faith, and faith is 
beyond questioning.  History is not. 

Further evidence of the course's intent is that it did not arise from student demand, but was presented to the school board by a community member with a fundamentalist religious orientation who had no children in the Lee district schools (Boren).  A committee that ostensibly was representative of the community was formed to develop a curriculum that would be acceptable, but majority board members packed the committee with conservative Christians (Boren).  "The committee was intentionally structured by everyone involved to be a committee destined for deadlock" (Bohannon).  Eventually, the committee's course outline was heavily redlined by school board attorneys to remove anything that could be considered religious indoctrination, but the school board majority ultimately rejected their attorneys' advice and adopted the so-called North Carolina curriculum, at least for Bible II, New Testament. 
The course probably fails the first, and certainly the second and third, prongs of the Lemon Test; therefore, the proposed curriculum is unconstitutional.  The majority on the school board has further revealed its religious motivation by hiring the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is commonly identified as the legal arm of the Christian Coalition, as its defense team in the threatened lawsuit.  

There are several possible solutions to the dilemma we face with this Bible history course.  Mark Ehman, the only academic Biblical scholar on the Bible committee, believes that the Bible can be taught objectively in public school from a literary, sociological, or even historical perspective if properly set in context.  Nevertheless, both he, Bohannon, and Nord believe the best way to teach about religion is in a broader comparative religion class.  Another solution, which seems imminent, is to seek injunctive relief from the courts.  According to news reports, People for the American Way (PFAW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are working with the venerable Miami law firm of Steel, Hector and Davis in preparation for a suit (Kelley).  Even if the American Center for Law and Justice represents the district pro bono, a suit will be an extremely expensive proposition because of staff time, district liability for plaintiffs' legal fees, and a possible financial recovery by plaintiffs.  In addition, board members who voted for the curriculum against their attorneys' advice may be individually and separately liable.  A final solution is to defeat the two members of the majority voting bloc who are up for re-election in 1998:  Doug Santini and Bill Gross. 
The best way to teach about religion is through a comparative religion class that not only teaches about Christianity and Judaism, but also about the other great world religions. Such a class would put the dominant American religious traditions in context, and would broaden students' perspectives and appreciation.  I compare it to the benefit of studying a foreign language.  Most of us never achieve more than a rudimentary knowledge of a foreign language in high school; however, studying another language deepens our understanding of English tremendously.  I would also advocate much more inclusion of religious themes and topics in academic subjects where they arise naturally in literature, art, anthropology, music, and especially history.  A knowledge of religion is necessary in order to be an educated person.  A crucifix does not depict "an Indian on a plus sign" as the young daughter of a friend once thought; the Pilgrims did not come to America because they were tired of the king.  Schools have shied away from religious topics to such an extent that many Americans do not understand the historical basis for the First Amendment.  The lack of religious literacy among students is an issue the school board could legitimately address. 

I do not believe the board majority will waiver from the plan to offer this Bible history class in spring 1998 semester. Too much is at stake when worldviews collide.  A superintendent and board attorney were ousted over this issue, and Santini and Gross are counting on Christian Coalition support to win in the 1998  election.  A lawsuit is shaping up with the ACLJ on one side and civil liberty groups such as PFAW and the ACLU on the other.  The prospect of a confrontation is disheartening, but our Constitutional freedoms come at the price of eternal vigilance. I do not think the district will be able to prevail, and if the course is ever offered, it will be for a short time.  Santini and Gross must face the voters in less than a year, and in my opinion they are unelectable.  They have turned a deaf ear to their constituents, violated the public trust, squandered resources, failed in their fiduciary responsibilities, and attracted unflattering national publicity to our schools.  A new board can immediately vote to eliminate the Bible history class; and with Santini and Gross gone, the third member of the voting bloc, Moore, will be impotent.  This episode has awakened the community to the religious right educational agenda, and I believe the resultant awareness will be good for future school board elections. 

If a lawsuit is not filed or fails, or if the religious right majority remains in control of the board, public education  in Lee County will be in serious jeopardy.  Once the Bible history course is in place, I predict the board majority will want to put Creationism in biology class.  I base this on statements made by various religious right leaders including board member Lanny Moore, who stated at a campaign forum hosted by the McGregor Baptist Church, "If you believe you descended from the apes or slime, that affects you . . . . For the first 150 years, creation was taught and we didn't have the (social) problems that we have today.  It matters if you believe man is created in God's image or created from slime"  (Pear).  Then it will be censorship of text and library books.  Nothing will be safe from the self-appointed guardians of morality.  As Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the ACLJ has said, "We have had to become incrementalists.  You cannot go from A to Z.  You start with A and go for B and C."  This statement shows that even their fiercest partisans understand the unpopularity of their agenda. 

In summation, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the teaching of a sectarian religious class in public schools.  The proposed Bible history class for the Lee County school district is a sectarian religious class; therefore, the proposed Bible history class cannot be taught in the Lee County public schools.  The attempt by citizens with a religious right educational agenda to force such a course into our high schools is having disastrous results.  Not only is the district being threatened with a lawsuit it cannot win, but the board attorneys have excised some of the most central and meaningful passages of the Bible from the course.  Fried noted, "Teaching  the Bible without mentioning God, is like teaching Moby Dick without mentioning the whale."  What is the point?  The point was made clear by a frustrated parent who addressed the board at a recent meeting, "It's not just an elective, it's an agenda" (Gribin). 

Works Cited

"Bible Class."  Narr. Daniel Zwerdling.  Weekend All Things Considered.  Natl. Public Radio.  WGCU, Fort Myers.  26 Oct. 1997. 

Bohannon, Harriet. Personal interview.  19 Nov. 1997. 

Boren, Katherine.  Telephone interview.  12 Nov. 1997. 

Curriden, Mark.  "Defenders of Faith."  ABA Journal (Dec. 1994):  n. pag.  Online.  Nexis.  24 Nov. 1997.   

Ehman, Mark.  Telephone interview.  13 Nov. 1997 

Fried, Herbert A.  Telephone interview.  13 Nov. 1997. 

Gabler, Mel, and Norma Gabler. Humanism/Moral Relativism in Textbooks:  The Belief System/Religion in Humanist Manifestos I & II. Longview, Texas:  Educational Research Analysts, June 1992. 

Gabler, Mel, Norma Gabler, and James C. Hefley.  What Are They Teaching Our Children?.  Wheaton:  Victor Books, 1987. 

Gerzon, Mark.  A House Divided:  Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul.  New York:  G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996. 

Gribin, Barbara.  Public comment.  Lee County School Board Meeting.  James Adams Public Education Center, Fort Myers.  21 Oct. 1997.  

Haynes, Charles C., Oliver Thomas, John B. Leach, Alyssa Kendall, eds.  Finding Common Ground:  A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education.  The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center:  Vanderbilt UP, 1996. 

Kelley, Eileen.  "Lee School Board Poised to Join Religious Rights Group."  Naples Daily News  24 Nov. 1997.  Online.  25 Nov. 1997. 

Mark Ehman, Interview with Jim Malchiore, News Odyssey, Odyssey Network, Fort Myers, 25 Aug. 1997. 

"NBC News in Depth."  Narr. Kerry Sanders.  NBC Nightly News.  NBC.  WBBH, Fort Myers.  22 Oct. 1997. 

Nord, Warren A.  Religion & American Education:  Rethinking a National Dilemma.  Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 

Pear, Thomas.  "School Board Candidates Debate the Issues."  Cape Coral Daily Breeze  26 Aug. 1996, no ed.:  N. pag. 

Simonds, Robert L.  How to Elect Christians to Public Office.  Costa Mesa:  National Association of Christian Educators and Citizens for Excellence in Education, 1996. 

Williams, Mary Carmack.  Personal interview.  15 Nov. 1997. 


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