By LINDA GIBSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2000
Schools in Florida that offer courses on the Bible must teach them as literature, not history, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said Thursday.
Gallagher's new guidelines on teaching the Bible in public schools will affect the 15 districts that currently offer the course in Florida. That includes Hillsborough, where students at Plant City and Chamberlain high schools are offered the elective course.
Under 1992 guidelines, students taking "Bible history: Old Testament" were to "acquire an understanding of the Bible as a historical document."
The new guidelines say, "Students will acquire a critical appreciation of the literature ... which came to be held as sacred scripture by the Jewish and Christian religious communities."
In addition, the courses no longer will be referred to as "Bible history: Old Testament" or "Bible history: New Testament." Their new titles are "Introduction to the Bible I" and "Introduction to the Bible II."
The new guidelines address complaints by People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal non-profit group based in Washington, D.C.
After studying how schools in Florida teach the history of the Bible, the group criticized the curriculum as unconstitutional. At Plant City and Chamberlain high schools, the group said, the Bible was presented as history with a Christian slant.
Its response Thursday to Gallagher's revisions was approving, but cautious.
"We're pleased that the state has taken this step," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for the group. "But what happens in the classroom is a lot more important than what the education commissioner puts on paper."
Plant City High School Principal Charles Raburn said he hadn't seen the new guidelines but said the school had no problem with the old ones. About 28 students take the semester class.
The Department of Education consulted with Florida State University's Department of Religion and worked with the school districts that teach the Bible before making the changes, Gallagher said in a press release.
The changes will take effect for the 2000-01 school year, but Gallagher urged the districts to make them sooner if possible.
Rep. Curt Levine, D-Boca Raton, who had filed a complaint with the Department of Education over how the Bible courses were being taught, said he was pleased by the changes.
"I am encouraged that the Department of Education has taken steps to see that this kind of improper material is not being taught to our public schoolchildren," he said. "I think it's important that schools teach material of this kind as literature."
Lisa Versaci, Florida director of the People for the American Way Foundation, emphasized teacher training. "The people who were teaching them taught them in the way they knew the Bible. It was very exclusionary."