ATLANTA — Georgia's public schools walk a delicate line as they decide whether to offer the nation's first state-funded Bible classes — measuring the difference between preaching and teaching with the likelihood of costly lawsuits looming for those that miss the mark.
The state school board approved curriculum in March for teaching the Bible in Georgia's high schools, but there hasn't been a rush of schools to start up the classes. Only a handful of the state's 180 school districts have agreed to offer the elective classes so far.
"It has been a very thoughtful, healthy process," said Robin Pennock, deputy schools superintendent of Muscogee County, where the school board decided to offer the Old Testament and New Testament classes next fall. "Most people do realize that this is an area that many people can feel very passionate about."
It's difficult to confirm how many school boards have adopted or are considering the classes. However, Muscogee — which borders Alabama and includes the city of Columbus and the Army's Fort Benning — is one of the state's largest districts to have done so.
"It's important to understand religion; it's something we've gotten too far away from," said Jan Pease, whose 15-year-old daughter attends Northside High School in Columbus.
The Bible already is incorporated into comparative religion and other public school classes in many states, but those classes are funded by the local districts, not with money from state government.
The Georgia law allowing the state-funded Bible classes won overwhelming approval last year from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The classes must be taught "in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."
Lawmakers in Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas have considered similar plans this year, although none has received final approval. One proposal in Texas would require all high school students to take a Bible class.
Supporters say fully understanding history, literature and political science — from the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to the war in Iraq — requires knowledge of the Bible.
"I don't think you can understand Shakespeare, that you can understand a great deal of literary allusions or that you can understand a great deal of Western civilization without understanding the role of the Bible," said Pennock, a former Western civilization teacher.
The Rev. Charles Hasty, of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, says he hopes exposure to the Bible's teachings may lead some students to seek out a more spiritual approach in their lives.
"It's going to challenge the faith of some students and it may foster the faith of others," Hasty said.
Critics fear the classes could easily turn into endorsements of Christianity.
"Georgia has set teachers up for failure," said Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center. "The chances of its being unconstitutional are pretty big and the pitfalls are huge."
His group supports religious discussions and study of the Bible in public schools, but Haynes says Georgia's law fails to give enough guidance to teachers on the difference between academic study and spiritual teaching.
No additional training for teachers is required, although Barrow and Muscogee counties, which both will offer the classes, plan to give teachers an online course and other special preparation.
Haynes said the lack of direction in state law makes schools vulnerable to lawsuits if students feel religion is being endorsed.
"People are going to sue," he said. "That's why the Legislature should have been more responsible about putting school boards in situations where they might have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, split their communities and end up in a courtroom."
The First Amendment Center and Georgia's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union both say they plan to monitor how the classes are taught.
Concern about violating the separation of church and state is a reason why some of Georgia's largest districts have steered clear of the classes so far.
"We have to be very careful with that," said Joe Buck, chairman of the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education. His school system has made no move yet to consider the classes.
Pease, a Christian, said she'd support schools teaching comparative religion classes, including those that studied the holy books of other major faiths like Islam's Quran.
"I don't think any particular religion needs to be pushed on anyone," she said. "But I do think it's important to teach about them."