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.
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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).
"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.