Outside editorial: Showdown in Odessa, Texas

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Washington Post:

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When the newly elected school board in Odessa, Texas, announced that it would require public schools to offer a Bible course elective, many townspeople cried hallelujah. But last week some other residents, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the American Way Foundation, sued the school district for violating the First Amendment.

Currently 8 percent of public schools nationwide offer courses on the Bible. The Supreme Court has deemed these classes constitutional so long as they "present knowledge, but neither promote nor disparage belief." Odessa residents are thus challenging the course's execution and not its existence. The district chose the more controversial of two leading Bible class curricula: a course designed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a group run by a veritable Who's Who of conservative Christian leaders. Council board member and actor Chuck Norris has described this curriculum as the "first step to get God back into your public school."

The creators of the curriculum, which is used in 37 states, have been accused of promoting sectarian beliefs. The course calls the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, for example, a "warped" understanding of a metaphor. Scholars have questioned the academic integrity of the curriculum, too, accusing its creators of plagiarism and unsupported historical.

Biblical understanding is not only constitutional; it's also essential to the study of literature, art, history and politics. But keeping school systems from indoctrinating students on scripture can be difficult. The fact that Odessa schools may be carelessly implementing their course doesn't bode well for their willingness to teach the Bible in an scholarly, nonsectarian fashion.

Given that the Texas legislature is considering a bill to bring Bible courses such as Odessa's to schools statewide, we hope that this lawsuit will force schools to think more critically about teaching this important but sensitive subject.

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