Originally created 08/06/99

Bible class approval challenged



ATLANTA -- A battle of almost biblical proportions may be brewing in the Bible belt.

The Georgia Board of Education next week is scheduled to vote on a list of more than 1,300 approved courses for the state's public schools that includes a couple of notable additions: Bible I and II.

Hundreds of Georgians have sent letters to the Department of Education about the proposed classes.

However, a national organization is already threatening a lawsuit, and the board's chairman is a little nervous about the whole thing.

"There are some constitutional issues there," said Board Chairman Otis Brumby of Marietta, who plans to ask State Attorney General Thurbert Baker for a legal opinion on the matter.

Mr. Brumby wants to take the Bible history courses off the approved list pending Mr. Baker's opinion. But it's unclear if the board can do that without delaying approval of the entire list of courses the state will fund until after the 1999-2000 school year starts this month.

Mr. Brumby said he didn't know the course was on the list when the board tentatively OK'd it last month, a vote that opened up a 30-day period of public comment leading up to final consideration scheduled for Aug. 12.

State Schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko said 90 percent of those who have contacted her agency support the courses, which were requested by officials in McDuffie, Lee and Decatur counties and parents in Evans.

"I'd say Georgians want it," the superintendent said.

She argued the class is a study of the Bible as history, not a religious course.

"There is no mention of God; there is no mention of creation," Mrs. Schrenko said. "They are just looked at as stories. There is no evaluation part in it to say this did happen or didn't happen.

"There is nothing religious to it."

People For the American Way, a liberal Washington-based organization, doesn't see it that way.

"There are right ways for public school students to be taught about religions, their role in history, and about the Bible and other foundation documents of those religions," said Carole Shields, president of the organization. "But the proposal now before Georgia's board is the wrong way. It's not a public-school course, it's a Sunday-school course."

The group said the curriculum produced by the private National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools involves an approach to Bible history that has been struck down by the federal courts.

In its letter to the board threatening legal action, People For the American Way calls the curriculum "clearly intended as a means to (teach) students in religious faith."

"It is appropriate for public schools to teach about religion -- in history classes, literature classes, or comparative religion classes," Ms. Shields said. "But the schools may not teach miracles and other matters of faith as historical fact or use these courses as a subterfuge to promote religious faith and sectarian beliefs."

The Bible courses aren't the only ones that have generated some discussion. The list includes an honors course called "Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Life and Intelligence."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.