The Bible in Public Schools: A fatally flawed guide

By Richard Land
Nov 13, 1999

A booklet entitled, “The Bible in Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide,” was unveiled last month to much fanfare. Eighteen organizations, as diverse as People for the American Way, the National Education Association and the National Association of Evangelicals, joined the Guide’s publishers — the National Bible Association and the First Amendment Center — in endorsing the Guide. They said it provides a blueprint for how public schools can teach about the Bible and religion without violating the Supreme Court’s mandates concerning separation of church and state.

The Guide was quickly hailed by the media, and many other people, as having “solved” the thorny problem of how to deal with the Bible and religion in public schools. However, for all the good it seeks to accomplish, the Guide’s proposed blueprint creates more problems than it solves and is fatally flawed.

So what does the Guide say, and why has it generated such excitement?

It quite correctly rejects what it labels as the “two failed models” that have dominated America’s public schools. The first model, which dominated in an earlier era, was the “sacred public school” where one religion (invariably the majority faith) was “preferred in school practices and policies.” The second model, far more prevalent in recent decades, seeks to remake the public school into a “religion-free zone” where religious expression is censored and suppressed in the classroom.

In rejecting these two failed models, unfortunately the Guide constructs a dangerous and fatally-flawed “third model” which would have public schools teach about the Bible and religion.

They acknowledge the Supreme Court has ruled that “supernatural occurrences and divine action described in the Bible may not be taught as historical fact in a public school.” They then amplify this and other court rulings to conclude that instruction about the Bible and religion in a public school must be “objective, non-judgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair.”

Just how do you accomplish such a task?

It is virtually impossible to teach a course about the Bible in a public school context — particularly when the students are minors — and be “objective, non-judgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair.” Objectivity, neutrality, balance and fairness are surprisingly subjective when applied to Biblical narratives such as the resurrection of Jesus. This is the central event in Christian belief and no less an authority than the Apostle Paul declared the truth claims of the Christian faith dependent on the reality of the resurrection of Christ (I Cor. 15:17).

How do you approach such an astounding supernatural claim in a way that is “objective, non-judgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair”?

Those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection will not see an approach to teaching the Bible that challenges its truthfulness as either “objective” or “neutral.” And those who believe the resurrection is a story or a myth will find any suggestions it might be credible unacceptable in public schools. This “truth claim” problem permeates the Gospels. Such claims do not lend themselves to “objective” and “neutral” treatment.

The overwhelming temptation of school districts will be to adopt a neutral model that will assume the Bible to be merely a book of historical significance and that will attempt to give “realistic” explanations of the supernatural events in the Bible.

Such a model would be neither “objective” nor “neutral.”

Perhaps my concerns are heightened by my experience in the United Kingdom, where I lived for three years while studying at Oxford University and pastoring a British Baptist church. There they have an established church, the Church of England; the Bible and religion were routinely taught in the public schools. As a Baptist, I considered that wrong, and in an American context, unconstitutional — even if what was taught had been straightforward, traditional Anglicanism.

Unfortunately, what was taught was a trendy, radical form of criticism which assumed much of the Bible, including the Gospel accounts, was merely myth and fable. I spent considerable time during that pastorate trying to counteract the negative impact on the young people in my church of such “neutral” Bible courses in state-sponsored schools.

The Guide would have been far better, and far less dangerous, if its authors had been content to reject the two failed models, to affirm a model that guarantees students’ rights to express their religion and to charge administrators with ensuring any student who desires has the opportunity to share his or her faith perspective — but not put public schools in the business of teaching about religion and the Bible.

I fear that many people of serious religious faith will find themselves increasingly distressed by the way most public schools will interpret the words “objective, non-judgmental, academic, neutral, balanced and fair” in teaching about religion and the Bible.

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