WASHINGTON (Dec. 11)
A lawsuit against a Florida school district for its planned Bible course could have important implications for the nationwide debate about religion’s role in public schools.
Seven parents, clergy and other community members — including the president of the local Jewish federation — filed a federal lawsuit this week against the school district of Lee County, Fla.
Backed by civil rights groups, the plaintiffs are claiming that a course to be offered in high schools next year teaches the Bible as historical fact and indoctrinates students in Christianity.
The controversy erupted two years ago when the school board first voted to allow a history course covering what they call the Old and New Testaments.
With the elective course scheduled to begin Jan. 21, opponents are seeking an injunction to prevent it. No date has been set for a hearing.
“I object to any scriptures at all being taught in the public schools,” said Ken Weiner, president of the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties and the only Jewish plaintiff in the lawsuit.
“There are appropriate places — home, synagogue, churches. This is truly a religious course most appropriate for Sunday school,” he said.
“I have no problem with a comparative religion course, but this clearly has a Christian bias to it.”
Weiner does not have children attending the local high schools, but said it was important for the Jewish community to be represented in the effort to block the course.
The Greensboro, N.C.-based National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools developed the course.
Its president maintains that the course is currently offered in 22 states and has never been challenged legally.
The issue at hand is much larger than the small community on Florida’s West Coast.
Church-state watchdogs say the Christian Coalition has been looking to Lee County as a test case in its nationwide effort to bring religion into the public schools.
The American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia-based group created by Christian Coalition leader the Rev. Pat Robertson, has offered to defend the school board — three of whose members are said to have close ties to the conservative Christian lobby.
The center maintains that the Bible course is about history, not proselytizing, and argues that it should not be banned because the Supreme Court has held that the Bible is appropriate for curriculum study.
It also called the lawsuit premature, saying that filing it before the course is actually offered is tantamount to censorship.
“There’s nothing to test,” Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, said of the efforts to see if the Bible course can pass legal muster.
“It’s perfectly clear how you run a good Bible curriculum, and this isn’t it.”
Courts have held that Bible as literature and comparative religion courses are permissible, but the particular curriculum the Florida school district is modeling its course after comes from a group that has an “evangelical world outlook” and takes the Bible literally, Stern said.
“There are perfectly good curricula around, and if somebody really wanted to put in a Bible as literature class, they could have done so without any controversy, as lots of schools have,” Stern said.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and People For the American Way, two watchdog groups backing the plaintiffs, see the Lee County dispute as a line in the sand.
“What’s at stake in this case is really stopping the agenda of the Christian Coalition and their attack on public schools, freedom of religion and the separation of church and state,” said Lisa Versaci, Florida state director of People For the American Way.
“This is one battleground in a much bigger war.”