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    Attorney: Bible curriculum plan would need changes

    School Board attorney John Bowen says the only way he thinks the curriculum would stand up to a legal challenge would be to remove all sections that preach Christianity.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2001


    Hazel Eakins has pledged to fight as long as it takes to persuade the Pinellas County School District to offer the elective Bible course she supports.

    She likely has a long battle ahead.

    School Board attorney John Bowen has reviewed the course Eakins is promoting from the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Bowen will recommend at a meeting tonight that the School Board should not adopt the National Council curriculum unless "substantial" changes are made.

    "It reads like a Sunday school curriculum," Bowen said Monday, citing lessons from the inch-thick proposal about the Lord's Prayer and Satan. "They are teaching it as history."

    Religious courses are allowed in public schools, but under strict guidelines. In fact, last summer the state Department of Education reworked how Bible courses can be taught. Now, in "Introduction to Bible: I or II," the Bible can be taught as a piece of literature, but not as history.

    Bowen will recommend that if there is student interest, the district should simply offer the state-approved curriculum. He fears that the district could get sued -- and lose -- if the National Council curriculum is offered.

    The National Council curriculum was approved for use in Lee County in 1997 but then pulled because the People for the American Way Foundation successfully sued the district in federal court. That same group has written Pinellas, promising legal action if the School Board approves Eakins' request.

    How to handle the issue ultimately is up to the School Board, which seemed lukewarm to the National Council curriculum when the idea was floated last summer.

    Bowen said the only way he thinks the curriculum would stand up to a legal challenge would be to remove all sections that preach Christianity. Bowen said he would work with the district's curriculum staff to make such changes if that's what the board wants.

    "Even as a history course, the curriculum needs substantial reworking in order to eliminate those chapters that cannot be verified historically, such as the story of creation or Noah and the flood," Bowen wrote in a memo to board members explaining his recommendation.

    Eakins did not return a call seeking comment.

    But she has told Catherine Fleeger, the assistant superintendent who oversees high schools, that the National Council curriculum is used successfully in three counties. Fleeger was not sure which ones use the curriculum, and she does not know whether those districts have been sued.

    Eakins told her that the state has approved the National Council curriculum. But Fleeger said she called the Department of Education and found that the state has neither approved nor disapproved it.

    Fleeger said that there never has been overwhelming interest for a Bible course in Pinellas. No students have requested to take the state-approved curriculum, so it is not in the district's course catalog.

    If enough students wanted to take Introduction to Bible, it could be added for the 2001-2002 school year, she said. Right now, the district does offer a comparative world religions class, but that's only in three or four high schools.

    "What we hear most often from parents and students is they have very little room in their schedules for electives," Fleeger said. "To continually add more and more electives, we really find the student interest isn't there."

    The School Board will meet at 5 p.m. today at the district administration building at 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

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