School boards ofter find themselves caught between a rock and hard place. One example is the new movement to include the teaching of "intelligent design" in science class. In December, 2005, a federal judge, ruled that "intelligent design" is "an interesting theological argument, but … not science,". In California, the Education Code gives school boards a clear directive regarding the standards relate to evolution. The next battle front that is emerging is the use of the Bible in teaching literature.
School boards caught in a new Darwinian debate
By Carol Brydolf, CSBA Magazine, December, 2005
It’s been 80 years since a Tennessee teacher was charged with violating a ban on the teaching of evolution in the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial. Since then, American courts have consistently ruled against the teaching of Biblical creationism in public school science classrooms.
Nonetheless, the evolution wars are heating up once again. Modern evolution critics have launched a sophisticated new campaign to “teach the controversy” over evolution that’s being argued in local school district boardrooms across the country. This new approach to evolution teaching, which critics say is the same old attack in slick new packaging, is resonating with the public and winning endorsements from President Bush, members of Congress, state legislatures, and state and local school boards.
Because overseeing curriculum is a major part of every school board’s job, increasing numbers of school board members across the country are finding they have little choice but to enter the newest skirmishes in the decades-long battle over evolution.
The newest anti-evolution campaign
“By the late 1980s, most educated Americans — and virtually all professional biologists — thought creationism was dead,” says Oakland-based author Gordy Slack, a contributing editor at the California Academy of Science’s California Wild magazine. Slack, who is writing a book about “the high-stakes political and cultural warfare” surrounding the evolution debate, has been tracking the movement for years, interviewing scientists, theologians and intelligent design advocates.
“The creationist movement is upright again and on the move,” he says, “but now it’s wearing a lab coat over its vestments.”
School boards on both sides of the evolution debate have run into legal trouble. Although most cases involve lawsuits against boards that have tried to undermine the teaching of evolution, a California district wound up in hot water recently for refusing to adopt changes to the curriculum.
Two school board members and a number of administrators in Placer County’s Roseville Joint Union High School District are being sued by a parent who lobbied relentlessly — and without success — to convince the board to adopt his anti-evolution “Quality Science Education Policy.” The district said the proposed changes would have weakened the science instruction and violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
At the beginning of the school year, a coalition of Christian schools filed suit against the University of California on behalf of six college-bound students, who took high school science classes based on anti-evolution texts. The lawsuit alleges that UC discriminated against these students on the basis of religion, by refusing to count these classes as eligible to satisfy science course requirements for admission.
Glenn Branch, a full-time defender of the teaching of evolution in public school science classes, gets worried whenever he hears that a local school board has gotten embroiled in — or dragged into — a debate over whether alternatives to evolution belong in the science curriculum.
“In my opinion, when school boards are involved, it’s usually a bad sign,” says Branch, deputy director of the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education. “It’s not the board’s job to tell science teachers what to teach.”
Board members are, however, in the cross-hairs of both pro- and anti-evolutionary forces, because they play such a central role in overseeing local school districts.
In California, the Education Code gives school boards responsibility for ensuring that course content is academically sound and for choosing instructional materials that are in line with state curricular frameworks and academic standards.
The state’s academic science standards explicitly require lessons on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, and an explanation of “how the independent lines of evidence from geology, fossils and comparative anatomy” support the theory. A special policy statement adopted by the California Board of Education forbids the teaching of religious or philosophical beliefs in science class.
Branch admits he may have a jaundiced view of school boards. After all, his organization generally gets called in cases where, as he sees it, school boards have ignored prevailing scientific wisdom and gone on the offensive against evolution — sometimes for explicitly religious reasons. But it’s also true that some school boards are dragged kicking and screaming into the debate by anti-evolutionary activists intent on injecting their views into the curriculum.
Consider the case now being tried in Pennsylvania. Parents sued the Dover district after the school board ignored the recommendations of the science community and their own teachers. The district included a statement in its curriculum warning students that evolution is just a “theory” and “not fact” and inviting them to learn more about an alternative explanation called intelligent design. When teachers refused to read the statement, the board directed the superintendent to do so.
Branch and evolution supporters are busier than ever these days. The newest efforts to sow doubts about the scientific veracity of evolution are far more sophisticated than past creationist efforts.
“For school boards, the debate is a no-win situation,” says Kerry Clegg, President of the California School Boards Association, who holds a doctorate in molecular and developmental biology and has no doubts about validity of the theory of evolution. “Both sides are taking the issue to court.”
Aided by a handful of articulate scientists, whose research is supported by conservative think tanks like Seattle’s Discovery Institute, evolution’s newest critics are asking what seems to be a reasonable question: Why not introduce students to alternatives to evolution, which, they say, is just a theory and one of many possible explanations for the history and diversification of life?
The only problem with “teaching the controversy,” say the nation’s leading scientists, is that as far as science is concerned, there is no controversy.
“There is no scientific debate over evolution,” says biologist Christopher Scott, a former vice chancellor at the University of California at San Francisco. In the July 2005 issue of Edutopia, a monthly magazine published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Scott defended the teaching of evolution as essential to educational excellence. “It’s easy to forget that caught in the middle of the evolution ruckus are our students — the next generation of scientists and science teachers.”
The newest evolution critique — intelligent design — argues, among other things, that living beings are made up of such an array of complex, inter-related components that they must have been designed by an intelligent creator of some kind.
By contrast, Darwin’s theory of natural selection says that living things in their present forms are the result of random genetic mutations and adaptations to different environments that have occurred over hundreds of millions of years.
Secular but not science
Unlike overtly religious creationists who believe God made the world and all living things, intelligent design backers are not specific about who or what did the designing. For this reason, they argue that their explanation is secular, not religious.
It may or may not be secular, critics argue, but it is not science. “Every bit of current experimental evidence changed and enhanced by new developments in DNA technology, new paleontological and anthropological finds support the basic premise of evolution,” says Clegg. “While some questions may still remain unanswered, these are constantly being narrowed as scientific investigation proceeds. ID does not and cannot be investigated by the scientific method. ID relies ultimately on the ‘designer,’ which is a euphemism for the ‘creator’ or ‘God,’ the existence of which can neither be proved nor disproved by the scientific method. It’s accepted on faith, and thus, is religious doctrine.”
Some districts have dealt with the issue by offering lessons on alternatives to evolution to be taught in social science or philosophy classes. A number of science teachers in districts across the country say they help their students analyze alternatives to evolution to sharpen their critical thinking skills. Fresno attorney Michael Smith, former president of the California Council of School Attorneys, advises school boards to be very wary of taking a “teach the controversy” approach to the issue. Smith, who will present a workshop titled “God on Campus” at CSBA’s Annual Education Conference in December, says the controversy over evolution is “arguably religious and not scientific.”
For that reason, he recommends that boards that want to introduce lessons on evolution critiques should do so in political science or sociology class, not science.
But most backers of intelligent design, including the handful of impressively credentialed scientists who support ID, insist that intelligent design be taught as legitimate science, not as a social or political phenomenon.
“It may be appropriate for schools to teach about intelligent design, but it is not appropriate to teach students that intelligent design is science,” says Kevin Padian, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California and curator of Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology.
Padian is an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the school board in Dover, Pa. The district made national headlines when its school board became the first in the country to require that intelligent design be included in the biology curriculum. Irate parents sued, arguing that the new policy violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Pressure to teach alternatives
Supporters of intelligent design got a big public relations boost when President George W. Bush said he favored teaching “both sides” of the issue, a sentiment echoed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a surgeon. Rick Santorum, Republican senator from Pennsylvania, inserted language in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that was interpreted by creationist supporters as a tacit invitation for schools to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. That language was ultimately not part of the final law, but is included in a statement released by the joint conference committee to explain how it reconciled the House and Senate versions of the NCLB bill.
Leading science education organizations say they are extremely worried that, even with the state curricular frameworks and legal precedent on their side, teachers will avoid teaching evolution for fear of sparking controversy. The National Science Teachers Association reports that three of every 10 science teachers say they are pressured by parents or students to teach non-scientific alternatives to evolution.
Phil Lafontaine, Administrator of the Math and Science Leadership Office at the California Department of Education and a former high school science teacher, says during his teaching career he sometimes encountered parents who were worried about the science curriculum.
“I told them that what we teach in science must be testable,” he says, “but we’re not trying to get their children to ‘believe’ anything. We are telling them: ‘This is what science thinks on this issue.’ “
Science is not a democracy
The scientific community may be winning most of the legal victories in the evolution wars, but they are losing in the court of public opinion. Recent polls show that most Americans believe in a Biblical view of creation and favor teaching students about intelligent design as well as evolution.
In some ways, evolution advocates argue, popular opinion about Darwinism and natural selection is beside the point. Designing science curriculum should be left up to the experts in the field, they say. And while most would insist that public school science teachers must be sensitive to their students’ cultural and religious backgrounds, their job is to ensure that students understand the latest and best scientific thinking. Parents do not have the right to dictate their children’s curriculum, although they do have rights under the education code to opt their children out of certain sex education classes and animal dissection labs.
“Science is not decided by popular vote,” says anthropologist Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Science Education Center and a Fellow at the California Academy of Sciences.
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has gone on the offensive to support California’s science curriculum frameworks and academic standards. At a press conference at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, O’Connell said he would oppose any effort to “inject the concept of intelligent design” into California classrooms.
Under then-Superintendent Bill Honig, Padian helped write the state science frameworks, which guide curriculum, academic standards and specify what children need to know. He was also instrumental in creating the policy statement on the “Teaching of Natural Sciences” that introduces the state curriculum frameworks.
He said the policy statement provides crucial guidance for school boards confronted with complaints about the teaching of evolution.
The policy, adopted by the state Board of Education in 1989, makes it clear that students do not have to “accept everything that is taught in the natural science curriculum.” Students do, however, “have to understand the major strands of scientific thought, including its methods, facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws,” the policy says.
The policy goes on to remind teachers they are “professionally bound to limit their teaching to science and should resist pressures to do otherwise.” Questions about issues outside the realm of natural science, the policy says, should be handled with respect, but discussed outside the science classroom.
There’s no law that requires school boards to use state-recommended curriculum or to adhere to state academic frameworks. However, because schools are evaluated based in large measure on their students’ performance on standardized tests based on these standards, it makes good educational sense to follow them closely. “School boards will be less subject to indefensible challenges to their science curriculum if they cleave to the state frameworks,” Padian says.
However, adhering to the standards doesn’t give a district complete legal protection.
The dispute in Roseville
Two members of the Roseville Joint Union High School District board and a number of district administrators are now in federal court after the district failed to adopt supplemental anti-evolutionary instructional materials. The board made its decision at the recommendation of their science teachers and university science experts who evaluated the material at the district’s request and after almost a year of study and deliberation.
Nonetheless, district parent and attorney Larry Caldwell is suing the district for “viewpoint discrimination” and alleged violation of his rights to free speech and religious freedom. Caldwell is representing himself with the help of the Sacramento-based Pacific Institute of Justice, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to defend religious evangelism, home schooling, churches, private schools and parental rights.
CORRECTION: In a sentence that has been deleted from this Web version of “Evolving Controversy,” CSBA misstated the position of parent/attorney Larry Caldwell in his lawsuit against the Roseville Joint Union High School District. The original article stated: “By insisting that evolution is the only scientifically valid theory for the diversification of life, Caldwell alleged, the district is establishing a religion of its own.” CSBA regrets this misstatement of Mr. Caldwell’s position.
In the reply brief filed in U.S. District Court, attorneys for the district argue that Caldwell’s science proposal amounted to a “creationist religious viewpoint.” “To have adopted the QSE Policy would have in fact been the adoption of a religious viewpoint by the district,” the district contends.
Local school boards have a legal obligation, the district argues in its court pleadings, to adopt textbooks and a curriculum that meet requirements of state law; nowhere does the law give a parent veto power over curriculum or instructional materials.
The court is now weighing a motion by the district to dismiss the suit.
Debate is costly and divisive
Debates over the teaching of evolution can be expensive and counterproductive. Such is clearly the case in Pennsylvania, where the board majority in the Dover district has already spent thousands of dollars to defend a curriculum that has been condemned as unscientific by leading academics in the field and the district’s own science teachers. Even the nation’s leading proponent of intelligent design, the Discovery Institute, has distanced itself from the lawsuit, saying mandating lessons on intelligent design may not be a viable strategy at this time.
The board policy, being challenged in court by 11 parents, warns students that evolution is a theory, “not a fact.” It mandates that students hear about alternative ideas, such as intelligent design, and urges them to consult the intelligent design textbook “Of Pandas and People.” The anti-evolutionary book has been roundly condemned by scientists like Padian and Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller, who wrote one of the nation’s leading biology texts. Miller called the book “a collection of half-truths, distortions, and outright falsehoods that attempts to misrepresent biology and mislead students as to the scientific status of evolutionary biology.”
CSBA President Clegg says it’s appropriate to draw a strict line between religion and science and between supernatural beliefs like intelligent design and strictly naturalistic theories like evolution.
This is not to say that scientists cannot be religious, Clegg says. Many of them are.
“For those scientists who are avid evolutionists and who maintain a religious tradition in their family, the issues never cross,” he says. “They make a distinction between what is scientific theory and what is religious doctrine to be accepted on faith as good moral policy. They understand that some things in the universe are not easily approached by science and may never be.”
Carol Brydolf (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer for California Schools.
Judge Says 'Intelligent Design' Is Not Science
He calls a school board's effort to teach it as an alternative to evolution unconstitutional
By Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2005
A federal judge, saying "intelligent design" is "an interesting theological argument, but … not science," ruled Tuesday that a school board violated the Constitution by compelling biology teachers to present the concept as an alternative to evolution.
The ruling came after U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III heard 21 days of testimony in a closely watched trial that pitted a group of parents against the school board in the town of Dover, Pa.
In October 2004, the board had required school officials to read a statement to ninth-graders declaring that Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution were "a theory … not a fact," and that "gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence."
"Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view," the statement said.
Jones, a church-going conservative who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002, said the statement was clearly designed to insert religious teachings into the classroom. He used much of his 139-page ruling to dissect arguments made for intelligent design.
Legal experts described the ruling as a sharp defeat for the intelligent design movement — one likely to have considerable influence with other judges, although it is only legally binding in one area of Pennsylvania.
The "overwhelming evidence" has established that intelligent design "is a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory," Jones wrote.
Public remarks by school board members, he said, made clear that they adopted the statement to advance specific religious views.
Testimony at the trial included remarks from a board meeting, where one of the backers of the intelligent design statement "said words to the effect of '2,000 years ago someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?' " the judge noted.
Supporters of intelligent design argue that biological systems are so complex that they could not have arisen by a series of random changes. The complexity of life implies an intelligent designer, they say. Most of the movement's spokesmen take care not to publicly say whether the designer they have in mind is equivalent to the God in the Bible. On that basis, they argue that their concept is scientific, not religious.
But Jones said the concept was inescapably religious.
"Although proponents of the [intelligent design movement] occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed by members" of the movement, including expert witnesses who testified, Jones wrote.
Remarks by board members that they had secular purposes in mind — to improve science teaching and to foster an open debate — were a "sham" and a "pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom," he wrote.
Anticipating attacks, Jones said his ruling was not the "product of an activist judge."
He said school board officials had lied in their testimony and excoriated them for not bothering to understand what intelligent design was about before making their decision. He rebuked what he called the "breathtaking inanity of the board's decision."
"This case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case" on intelligent design, he wrote.
The school district will not appeal the ruling, said Patricia Dapp, who was elected to the Dover board this year. The supporters of intelligent design have been voted out of office, and eight members of the board now oppose the concept, she said.
The Dover trial, in which Jones heard testimony from leading advocates of intelligent design as well as experts on evolutionary theory, was one of several battlegrounds for intelligent design in the last year.
In January, a U.S. district judge in Georgia ruled that the school system in Cobb County, near Atlanta, had violated the Constitution by requiring stickers to be placed on biology textbooks casting doubt on the theory of evolution.
This month, a federal appeals court in Atlanta considered arguments in the case, with at least one judge expressing doubts about the lower court ruling.
In Kansas, the state Board of Education has changed the definition of science to permit supernatural explanations.
That reliance on the supernatural was key to Jones' rejection of the Dover school board's position.
Intelligent design arguments "may be true, a proposition on which this court takes no position," he wrote, but it "is not science."
"The centuries-old ground rules of science" make clear that a scientific theory must rely solely on natural explanations that can be tested, he wrote.
That portion of the decision won praise from Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He was the lead expert witness for the parents in the case and is the author of biology textbooks used in college and high school classrooms.
Miller testified that it was crucial that scientific propositions be able to be tested.
To illustrate his point, Miller, an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox, testified that when his team beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 baseball playoffs, a fan might have believed "God was tired of [Yankee owner] George Steinbrenner and wanted to see the Red Sox win."
"In my part of the country, you'd be surprised how many people think that's a perfectly reasonable explanation for what happened last year. And you know what? It might be true. But it certainly is not science … and it's certainly not something we can test," Miller said.
Supporters of intelligent design denounced Jones' ruling along the lines the judge had predicted.
"The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea … and it won't work," said John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. The institute, based in Seattle, is a major backer of the intelligent design movement.
"Anyone who thinks a court ruling is going to kill off interest in intelligent design is living in another world," West said.
Richard Thompson of the Thomas More Law Center, the lead lawyer for the school board members, called the ruling an "ad hominem attack on scientists who happen to believe in God."
"The founders of this country would be astonished at the thought that this simple curriculum change [was] in violation of the Constitution that they drafted," he said.
But Lee Strang, a constitutional law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., which advocates a greater role for religion in public life, said that given Supreme Court precedents and the evidence that Dover school board members had religious goals in mind, Jones' ruling was inevitable.
The Supreme Court in 1987 barred the teaching in public schools of what backers called creation science. The concept of intelligent design emerged after that ruling, Jones noted in his ruling.
Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas School of Law said the ruling would probably have considerable influence because it came after a trial in which "both sides brought in their top guns" to testify.
The judge's detailed ruling "will be quite persuasive to other judges and lawyers thinking about provoking a similar case elsewhere," he said.
Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York, who is an expert on religious freedom issues, agreed that the ruling could have broad ramifications.
"These are tough times to rule against a religious group," Hamilton said. "This decision sends a message to judges that it is not anti-religious to find things like intelligent design unconstitutional."
Eric Rothschild, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, called the ruling "a real vindication of the courage [the parents] showed and the position they took."
The testimony, he said, had demonstrated that "the emperor had no clothes. The judge concluded that intelligent design had no scientific merit" and could not "uncouple itself from religion."
Excerpts from a 139-page ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, which bars a public school district in Dover, Pa., from teaching the concept of intelligent design in biology class.
"The breathtaking inanity of the board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."
"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the intelligent design policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the intelligent design policy."
"Both defendants and many of the leading proponents of intelligent design make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general."
"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom."
"Defendants' asserted secular purpose of improving science education is belied by the fact that most if not all of the board members who voted in favor of the biology curriculum change conceded that they still do not know, nor have they ever known, precisely what intelligent design is."
"Any asserted secular purposes by the board are a sham and are merely secondary to a religious objective."
"Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on intelligent design, who in combination drove the board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy."
Does the Bible have a place in public schools?
New legal mandates and the rise of two national curricula are driving a surge in the number of classes — and the debate over how they're taught
By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2007
It looks like a scene out of Sunday school — students in a southern Orange County classroom huddle over Bibles as teacher Ryan Cox guides them in analyzing the relationship between God and Satan.
"If God is supposedly omnipotent, if he exists and is all-powerful, why let the serpent in the Garden" of Eden? Cox asks. "Why let him hurt Job? Why let him tempt Jesus?"
But this lesson, at Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo, is one of the growing number of Bible classes being taught in public schools across the nation.
There is broad agreement across the social, political and religious spectrum, and most important the Supreme Court, that the Bible can be taught in public schools and that knowledge of the Bible is vital to students' understanding of literature and art, including "Moby-Dick," Michelangelo and "The Matrix."
But battles are raging in statehouses, schools and courtrooms over how to teach but not to preach.
s the number of these classes increases across the nation, civil libertarians, religious minorities and others fear that Bible lessons cloaked in the guise of academia may provide cover for proselytizing in public schools.
"Theoretically, it can be taught in an appropriate manner, but it takes the wisdom of Solomon to do it," said Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "You're balancing academic quality, constitutional concerns and community sensibilities."
Although exact numbers are unavailable, experts agree that the number of Bible classes in public schools is growing because of new state mandates, increased attention to religion in public life and the growing prominence of two national Bible curricula.
Texas is the epicenter of the Bible battles. Legislation the governor signed in June set standards for such courses and could require every school in the state to offer them. Meanwhile, a legal battle in Odessa could invalidate the most widely used Bible curriculum.
Elsewhere, public high schools in Georgia will start offering state-funded Bible electives this fall. And in Riverside County, Murrieta voted in April to offer such a course in the fall, and school trustees in Huntington Beach and East Palo Alto are being urged by parents or politicians to follow suit.
"A lot of people thought it was one heck of a good idea. Others thought we were Satan's spawn," said Paul Diffley, a Murrieta school board member.
Religion has a long, volatile history in the nation's public schools, even leading to killings and church burnings in Philadelphia in 1844 when Roman Catholics protested after their children were forced to read a Protestant translation of the Bible in school. Over the next century, religious education ebbed and flowed, with districts and states taking varying tacks in how they integrated the Bible into the school day.
In 1963, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared school-led Bible readings and prayer unconstitutional. Justice Tom C. Clark emphasized in the ruling that the court did not intend to discourage academic study of religion.
"It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the 1st Amendment," he wrote.
Despite that legal opinion, many public school officials have feared bringing the Bible into the classroom. A 2004 Gallup poll found just 8% of public school teens said their schools offered an elective Bible course.
High school English teachers and university professors say this lack of exposure to Bible tales has led to an education gap. A 2005 report by the Bible Literacy Project, which created a well-regarded Bible study course, found that although virtually all the teachers it surveyed said biblical knowledge was important to students' education, most thought few students had a command of the subject.
However, when these classes are taught, they can be fraught with problems. A 2006 study by Chancey, funded by the liberal Texas Freedom Network, which surveyed every Texas public high school's Bible classes, showed what can go wrong. Of the 25 districts offering the classes during the 2005-06 academic year, the study found, all but three had minimal academic value and were not taught objectively, teachers were largely unqualified, and some classes were taught by clergy.
"The vast majority of Texas Bible courses, despite their titles, do not teach about the Bible in the context of a history or literature class," according to the study. "Instead, the courses are explicitly devotional in nature and reflect an almost exclusively Christian perspective of the Bible. They assume that students are Christians, that Christian theological claims are true and that the Bible itself is divinely inspired — all of which are inappropriate in a public school classroom."
The Bible debate is most volatile in Odessa, where in late 2005 the Ector County Independent School District adopted a controversial course created by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and offered it at two high schools.
The National Council program, endorsed by conservative organizations such as Concerned Women for America and the American Family Assn., is used in 395 school districts in 37 states, according to the group's website. "Your first step to get God back into your public school," the website says.
Attempts to reach officials with the Greensboro, N.C.-based group were unsuccessful.
After the Odessa school board's 4-2 vote, the district's director of curriculum sent an e-mail celebrating the decision: "Take that, you dang heathens!" according to a lawsuit filed against the district in May by the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and eight parents.
"The folks pushing this curriculum in this form are not actually folks who want it to be taught constitutionally," said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Texas.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, which is defending the district, said the lawsuit was rife with inaccuracies and he questioned the plaintiff's motives.
"It's the most widely used [Bible] curriculum in the country, in hundreds and hundreds of school districts," he said. "If they knock this out [in Odessa], they knock it out in places all over the country."
A competing curriculum, the Bible Literacy Project, took five years and $2 million to produce and has been praised by the National Assn. of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress and the First Amendment Center.
It became available for the 2006-07 school year, when it was used by 80 school districts in 30 states, according to project spokeswoman Sheila Weber, who declined to release names of districts. More are expected to use the course in the fall, including 30 in Georgia.
The Murrieta Valley Unified School District will use the project's "The Bible and Its Influence" textbook in a "Bible in Literature" course approved in April. Students who enroll in the senior English elective will analyze the Bible's effect on literary works such as "Hamlet," "Jane Eyre" and "Life of Pi."
"It's going to be quite a rigorous course for students," district spokeswoman Karen Parris said. "It really is designed to prepare students for a postsecondary education."
Although the board unanimously approved the course, the decision was not without controversy.
Thomas Scher, who graduated from Murrieta Valley High in June and will attend Stanford University, said that although he approved of the course in concept, he believed religious agendas prompted its adoption.
"There was an effort made to bring Judeo-Christian religion into our school under the guise of academia," he said at a school board meeting in May. "Political or religious agendas do not belong in our schools, and that is simply what is going on here today."
In Huntington Beach, a retired engineer proposed a Bible class after gathering thousands of signatures at his Presbyterian church in Westminster.
"The moral level of this country has dropped pretty strenuously," said Walter Schulte, 82, of Westminster.
"This country was started on a Christian basis. My feeling is if [students] become familiar with a Bible, even as literature, the odds are they will investigate it even further, and I'm willing to say there will be those who believe in it."
He was able to get one school board member to agree to study the matter, but the majority was not interested. Schulte plans to keep attending school board meetings, urging the board to change its mind.
In southern Orange County, Cox's "Bible as/in Literature" course appears to be a model of an objective, nonsectarian course. The text is "The Layman's Parallel Bible," which offers four translations side-by-side. Cox tells the class at the start that some people believe the Bible is the literal word of God while others think it is a collection of stories, but that that is irrelevant to the class' purpose.
"Religious questions may arise, and that's totally fine as long as we're respecting that different people have different views," Cox said.
He is enthusiastic about what students learn, whether it's reading one of the 1,300 biblical references in Shakespeare's plays or watching the Brad Pitt movie "Babel."
"Just bringing the biblical analogies and allusions to light adds so much," he said.
The students, a mix of religions and backgrounds, said the class had been more difficult than they expected and more meaningful.
"I go to church a lot, and I wanted to see how they taught it in school and take away the religion part of it," said Christeen Barnes, 17, a Mormon. "We've gone more in depth, and it's a different view, more literary."
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