WASHINGTON — An interfaith group has released a new textbook aimed at teaching public high school students about the Bible while avoiding legal and religious disputes.
The nonprofit Bible Literacy Project of Fairfax, Va., spent five years and $2 million developing The Bible and Its Influence. The textbook, introduced at a Washington news conference today, won initial endorsements from experts in literature, religion and church-state law.
The textbook "shows that it can be done," said American Jewish Congress attorney Marc Stern, an adviser on the effort. "And it will short-circuit people who would take religion entirely out of the public school curriculum."
The $50 book and forthcoming teacher's guide, covering both Old and New Testaments, are planned for semester-long or full-year courses starting next year.
The editors are Cullen Schippe, a retired vice president at textbook publisher Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, and Chuck Stetson, a venture capitalist who chairs Bible Literacy. The 41 contributors include prominent evangelical, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and secular experts.
Religious lobbies and federal courts have long struggled over Bible course content. To prevent problems, Bible Literacy's editors accommodated Jewish sensitivities about the New Testament, attributed reports about miracles to the source rather than simply calling them historical facts, and generally downplayed scholarly theories — about authorship and dates, for example — that offend conservatives.
Educators know biblical knowledge is valuable — 60% of allusions in one English Advanced Placement prep course came from the Bible — and that polls show teens don't know much about Scripture. Yet few public schools offer such coursework, partly owing to demands for other elective classes, partly because of legal worries. The U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Abington School Dist. v. Schempp barring schoolroom Bible recitations said that "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" if "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education."
The textbook follows detailed principles in a 1999 accord, The Bible and Public Schools, brokered by Bible Literacy and the First Amendment Center. That accord is endorsed by seven major educational organizations and Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups.
Stetson said "the important thing was not to compromise on peoples' beliefs. They are what they are." To Schippe, the key to effective education is respect for the biblical text, constitutional law, scholarship, various faith traditions and divergent interpretations.
The First Amendment Center's Charles Haynes said the only previous textbook, decades old, was inadequate because it treated the Bible only as literature, slighting its religious significance.
“This is the first textbook to include accurate and age-appropriate discussion of how various religious traditions understand and use the Bible," Haynes said. "Given the long history of conflict over this issue in schools, no textbook is risk-free. But The Bible and Its Influence is the closest public schools can get to a legal and academic safe harbor for teaching about the Bible.”
The new textbook was tested in two high schools. Bible Literacy will offer online teacher training through Concordia University in Portland, Ore.
Another program, favored by evangelical groups and used in hundreds of schools, comes from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools of Greensboro, N.C. It provides a teacher's outline with the Bible itself as the textbook.