Saturday, January 21, 2006
The Steamboat Springs School Board should reject a proposal by two parents for a history and literature course using the Bible as the main text.
The proposal deserves due process, but enough problems and shortcomings already are apparent with the idea to make the right decision obvious.
The course, designed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, would entail a yearlong elective class for high school students emphasizing the Bible as "the foundation document of our society."
The parents proposed the same course last spring but did so after the deadline for suggesting curriculum changes, so it was never judged on merit.
Advocates here and with the council argue the course is designed to achieve secular academic goals, rather than to indoctrinate students in sectarian theology.
There's compelling evidence to the contrary, however, some of which is in a study commissioned by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. The network is undoubtedly a special interest group, as is the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, but the study's author seems qualified and objective. Professor Mark Chancy teaches biblical studies at Southern Methodist University, a bastion of mainline conservatism in Dallas. His unfavorable critique of the curriculum has been endorsed by almost 200 theologians teaching at institutions such as the Baptist University of the Americas, California Lutheran University, Jewish Theological Seminary, Wake Forest Divinity School, Duke Divinity School, Notre Dame and Harvard Divinity School. The network might be accused of being radical and anti-religious, but Chancy and his supporters clearly are not.
The report finds serious problems with every aspect of the proposed curriculum including flawed research, factual errors and plagiarism. Chancy concludes: "The curriculum on the whole is a sectarian document. It attempts to persuade students to adopt views that are held primarily within certain conservative Protestant circles."
Even if you dismissed Chancy's analysis as biased, there are good reasons to reject the council's curriculum. Members of the council's staff, board and advisory committee clearly are activists of the religious right. Adopting a turnkey curriculum from them makes no more sense than adopting an environmental studies curriculum from Greenpeace.
There is nothing improper about holding the religious beliefs espoused by the council or with linking those to a political philosophy. People who do so have the right to promote that agenda in many venues but not public schools.
Parents who want faith-based education for their children have options outside the publicly funded system.
Likewise, if there is a widespread community desire to address religious subjects in public schools, it could be accommodated in ways that benefited students without offending anyone's faith.
The main condition is that any course be scrupulously nonsectarian, honestly objective and up to the same rigorous academic standards as the rest of the district's curriculum.
It's important to remember that a decision to reject this class would deny no one's right to practice religion; it would help protect every one's right to do that.
The council argues the Bible more than anything else influenced the nation's founders. That's a matter for endless debate. But no matter what their personal religious beliefs, establishing a broad freedom of religion was what the Constitution's framers intended when they wrote the First Amendment; approving this class would undermine that intent.