Bible-class idea draws favor, fire
By ROBERT KING
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
A former Hernando School Board member who wants Bible classes taught in county schools says the only Bible course now approved by the state could force students into a "spiritual crisis" that could cause more problems than it solves.
Jerry Milby, whose School Board term expired in November, said the state-approved "Introduction to the Bible" would likely engender classroom debates on the Bible's theology that could press a young student's faith to the breaking point.
Some students might come through the test with their faith strengthened, Milby said. But he fears that others, influenced by critical challenges to the Bible's authority, might lose their faith.
In November, Milby convened a group of local clergy members from Christian denominations to discuss his idea for Bible courses in the public schools. Those present shared his concerns with the course.
"The feeling was at their age level it might be a little harder for (high school students) to deal with" having their faith challenged, Milby said. "It could present more of a problem than the benefits."
With that in mind, Milby and the ministers agreed to pursue the adoption of a Bible course that focuses less on critical review of the Bible and more on the Bible's influence on American history.
But there is no such course on the state's approved class list. To offer it, the district would have to draw up a new course from scratch and get the state Department of Education to approve it. The deadline to submit such ideas for the 2001-02 school year passed in December.
Charles Casciotta, who oversees high school curriculum in Hernando County, said he believes that means Milby's idea for a Bible course is "a dead issue for the year." But Casciotta said he still planned to talk about the issue with the high school social studies teachers.
Milby first proposed the idea of a Bible course in October, a month before the end of his term. He said he had just begun to feel a "conviction" about the need for a course that he hoped "would raise the consciousness of God in our schools."
The idea immediately drew fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and some local clergy members who subscribe to faiths other than Christianity. They said it was an unconstitutional mingling of church and state.
ACLU lawyer Randall Marshall said the very reason Milby wanted to establish the course -- his desire to raise the consciousness of God -- is what makes the course illegal.
Despite such warnings, Milby says that whoever teaches the Bible course he now envisions should have a knowledge and a "supportive belief" of the Bible. He would even prefer that the course be taught by a Christian.
"If they were not a Christian, it would be impossible for them to clearly portray the influences of the Bible," Milby said. "It doesn't mean that that person has to go in there and evangelize."
Casciotta said the district could not legally require that a teacher be a Christian to lead a class. And any social studies course would, by nature, require that the teacher allow critical discussions of the topics.
Milby says there are many instances in American history when the nation's leaders relied on the Bible as their guide in making decisions that shaped the country. Those are the things he thinks students should be taught.
Since the course would be an elective, and not a requirement, Milby believes such a course could stand up to court challenges.
Douglas Zipperer, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Brooksville, was one of the clergy members who attended Milby's gathering in November. He agrees with Milby on the importance of showing students the Bible's role in history.
"My own personal feeling was that it would be better to pursue it on the influence of Christian faith in our early American government," Zipperer said.
"I think it's very important for us to understand that the church has a great influence on our government and should have influence on our government."
Current members of the School Board, save Robert Wiggins, have steered clear of Milby's idea for a Bible-oriented course. Most have favored a course in which students would study the elements of multiple religions, and they will have an opportunity later this spring during curriculum discussions to consider that option.
Wiggins initially advocated a Bible history course and promised to pick up the torch when Milby left office. But he has leaned more toward a comparative religions course since People for the American Way, a Washington-based foundation with a history of fighting Bible classes in public schools, sent a warning letter to the School Board in October. After Milby's proposal, the organization warned the School Board to be careful with such an idea. "While students can be taught about the Bible, they cannot be taught the Bible," the letter said.
Steve Clemons, a history teacher at Springstead High School, has expressed interest in teaching the kind of course that Milby is talking about. He says schools could benefit from the Bible's influence. But Clemons said he would only teach the course if it would do justice to the Bible and the Christian faith.
"I'm an evangelical, fundamental Christian, and I absolutely refuse to water it down," Clemons said.
But Clemons doesn't have the time, as Milby had hoped, to draw up the course by himself. Even if a proposal were put together, Clemons isn't sure it would survive the inevitable legal challenges.
"The way our society is right now, it's just not going to happen," Clemons said. "That's unfortunate."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111