News reports about a questionable elementary school Bible course recently brought national attention on the Rowan-Salisbury, NC public school system. According to these reports, the classes are funded by religious nonprofit groups and include explicit religious indoctrination. If true, these practices raise serious constitutional issues.
Shortly after the Bible course made the news, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board held a meeting to consider whether the classes should continue. Although the Board voted to review the course curriculum, it appears that the classes will continue pending the review. In support of continuing the Bible classes, Chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners Jim Sides reportedly stated: “I am sick and tired of being told by the minority what’s best for the majority.”
Our nation’s public schools certainly are not devoid of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools can teach about religion in an objective and neutral manner, but they cannot teach or indoctrinate religion. For school officials, making that distinction - particularly for a Bible course - is no easy task. Indeed, a letter ADL sent to the Rowan-Salisbury School Board in advance of its recent meeting noted that all reported legal decisions on Bible courses in public schools found constitutional violations.
ADL firmly believes that comparative religion classes are more appropriate for public schools. By its vote, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board apparently does not agree. But the Board needs to take a number of important steps to ensure that its Bible course is constitutional and religiously inclusive. First and foremost, it has to abide by the Supreme Court’s directive, which requires a number of practical steps.
For starters, the classes should be limited to secondary schools. When it comes to religion in the public schools, the Courts are most protective of elementary school students because they are most impressionable and vulnerable to religious coercion. Trying to craft a constitutionally permissible elementary school curriculum is simply unworkable, and will undoubtedly lead to more controversy and litigation.
The curriculum also should be reviewed by a professor of religious studies or another expert, and Bible course teachers should receive training on Establishment Clause and religious diversity issues.
Chairman Sides and the school board should keep in mind that our nation’s public schools serve all of our children, whether they are in the religious majority or minority. If a school makes the decision to teach a Bible course, the curriculum should be balanced and pluralistic in nature. It cannot advocate one particular religion, or one biblical interpretation or translation over another.