TN Tells High Schools How to Teach the Bible

Published February 13, 2010

Starting next fall, Tennessee high schools that want to teach students about Noah, Moses, and the Prodigal Son will have a state-approved road map to do so.

On January 28 the Tennessee Board of Education approved guidelines on how to teach the Bible to public high schools. The curriculum is in response to 2008 legislation which authorized the state to create a course for a “nonsectarian, nonreligious academic study of the Bible.”

State officials said they tried to develop principles that are safe from court challenges, but others believe a state-approved Bible course could violate church and state separation, depending on who teaches the course.

Reading, Writing, and Biblical History

Hedy Weinberg, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said it appears the state was sensitive to concerns that the classes would be used to proselytize. But there are few details on how the classes will be run.

“Whether these classes are constitutional depends on who teaches them and how they are taught,” she said. “The devil is in the details.”

Board member Richard Ray voted in favor of the standards, but he said he is concerned that potential lawsuits could create a distraction for schools.

“We have so much that needs to be done to elevate our kids in math and science, the focus of education should be right there,” he said.

Confusing Legislation

The course is an elective, meaning high schools can choose whether to offer it to students as a social studies credit, and students can decide whether to take it. Before the state-approved curriculum, school districts could develop and offer their own courses on the Bible, and according to state social studies specialist Brenda Ables, some of these classes have been offered for years.

Ables said the legislation actually complicates the issue because it doesn’t require districts with existing Bible courses to convert to the state’s curriculum.

“We think we’ve gotten this curriculum written to meet all guidelines that would uphold court challenges,” she said. “Those schools who had their own curriculum and were already teaching it will continue to do so until somebody tells them they can’t.”

The guidelines do not recommend a textbook, and they require that teachers make literature from other religions available to students. The course covers biblical readings, how historical figures such as President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. used the Bible, and the timeline of biblical events, among other topics.

Other States’ Programs Studied

Ables said state officials looked to other states with Bible courses, including Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, when developing curriculum and determining what legal pitfalls to avoid.

Bible courses in Knox County have been popular with students and problem-free, Ables said, but she doesn’t expect to see a huge increase of schools in Tennessee that will offer the course.

In the Nashville area, Rutherford County schools said there are no plans to teach the Bible, while other districts did not respond to questions by deadline. Wilson County was the first in the area to offer such a class in 2007.

Kent Richards, Old Testament professor at Emory University and executive director of the Society for Biblical Literature, has spent the past five years developing guidelines for teaching the Bible in public schools. He worked with Tennessee on this course.

Richards and other state officials agree that the focus now must shift to properly training educators who will teach the course.

“One of the important things is that teachers are teaching about the Bible and not professing some religion or professing that the Bible is the only road to take,” he said. “That’s what every school and every school attorney is concerned about, not crossing that line.”

Widening Audiences

Students will learn the content of the Bible and its historical context. They’ll also learn that different traditions organize the Bible differently. In most modern English translations, the Old Testament ends with the prophetic book of Malachi. But the Hebrew Bible, used by Jews, ends with the historical books Ezra and Nehemiah followed by First and Second Chronicles.

Sam Marshall, who teaches the Bible in the “Lads to Leaders” program at Hillsboro Church of Christ, said he was pleased to hear about the new curriculum. He believes learning about the Bible is important, even if classes are taught from a secular perspective.

“It’s a good thing to expose as wide an audience as possible to the Bible,” he said.

Still, Marshall, whose children attend private Christian school, says there’s more to the Bible than history and literature.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Jaime Sarrio ([email protected]) and Bob Smietana ([email protected]) are staff writers at The (Nashville) Tennessean, where a previous version of this article appeared on January 29. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.