Originally created 04/08/06

Some teachers uneasy about classes on Bible



ATLANTA - When Georgia lawmakers overwhelmingly authorized Bible classes in public schools, it was viewed as an election-year effort to appeal to a broad swath of voters.

But some teachers fear they will be put in a tough position by the challenge of teaching a religious text without straying across the constitutional line between church and state.

"It's just another instance where the cultural wars are going to be fought out in our classrooms," said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the 65,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

"Teachers are going to feel themselves pressured to teach Bible almost like Sunday school, and that's where the tightrope walking is going to come into it."

The bill, which cleared the Legislature last month, approves elective classes on the Old Testament and New Testament to be taught to high school students.

The Bible is already incorporated into some classes in Georgia and other states.

But education analysts say the plan - which Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to sign - makes Georgia's the first state government to take an explicit stance endorsing Bible teaching.

The proposal, written by Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, requires that the courses be taught "in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."

In an election-year surprise, Senate Democrats introduced their own Bible bill ahead of the GOP, saying that understanding the Bible and its teachings is crucial to understanding American politics, history, literature and art.

Republicans, who hold majorities in both the Senate and House, quickly offered their version, which ultimately passed.

The plan gives the state Department of Education until February 2007 to craft curricula for the two courses.

Once they are offered, local school systems may choose to teach the classes but will not be required to do so.

"It will be an elective," department spokesman Dana Tofig said.

"The way we generally handle electives is we review material for these classes, come up with resource materials and the school systems decide if they want to offer the classes."

He said work has not begun on the classes because the bill has not yet been signed into law by Mr. Perdue.

"Our curriculum department and the state Board of Education will be very careful," Mr. Tofig said. "We offer a lot of electives, but not many of them come over from the Legislature."

Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel with the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her group will keep a close eye on the curriculum and the way the courses are taught once they are implemented.

She said the wording of the bill appears to be constitutional, but the actual teaching of the courses could lead to complaints and legal action.

"It's difficult for a teacher to teach a class like this," she said. "They're expected to both be an expert in the Bible and its history and also constitutional scholars.

"They have to know where the line is and they have to be sure they're keeping the class constitutional."

That's what concerns many teachers, Mr. Callahan said.

While some members of his group welcome the new classes, he said others are afraid teaching the Bible will make them targets for parents who want a more religious approach than the law allows.

"In our view, this legislation was totally unnecessary," said Mr. Callahan, noting that comparative religion and other courses that incorporate the Bible already are taught in some Georgia public schools.

"The Democrats proposed it to goad the Republicans, who, in the best form of political jujitsu, took it and ran with it.

"Meanwhile, educators were left over here on the sidelines."