ODESSA, Texas The school board in this West Texas town has voted unanimously to add a Bible class to its high school curriculum.
Hundreds of people, most of them supporters of the proposal, packed the board meeting last night. More than 6,000 Odessa residents had signed a petition supporting the class.
Some residents, however, said the school board acted too quickly. Others said they feared a constitutional fight.
Barring any hurdles, the class should be added to the curriculum in fall 2006 and taught as a history or literature course. The school board still must develop a curriculum, which board member Floy Hinson said should be open for public review.
The board had heard a presentation in March from Mike Johnson, a representative of the Greensboro, N.C.-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, who said that coursework designed by that organization is not about proselytizing or preaching.
But People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the council, saying its materials promote religion.
Johnson said students in the elective class would learn such things as the geography of the Middle East and the influence of the Bible on history and culture.
"How can students understand Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper' or Handel's 'Messiah' if they don't understand the reference from which they came?" Johnson said. The group's Web site says its curriculum has received backing in 292 school districts in 35 states.
Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., said, “Bible electives are a good idea, but only if they are taught in ways that are constitutionally and educationally sound."
Haynes told the First Amendment Center Online: "If Odessa schools adopt the National Council approach, they’ll trigger a fight. But if they use materials that are balanced and objective and train teachers to use them, then the course could be a valuable addition to the curriculum.”
In Frankenmuth, Mich., a similar proposal led to a yearlong controversy before the school board voted in January not to offer such a course.