Study Bible at home, not school
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000
Jerry Milby has discredited himself and his mostly constructive work on the Hernando County School Board by waiting until the last month of his four-year term to push an agenda that has the potential to become a divisive and costly debate.
Milby, who is not seeking re-election, announced last week he wants courses on the Bible to be taught in high schools. There's nothing new about such a proposal. It's been researched and implemented in about 20-percent of Florida's school districts. But it also has been a magnet for litigation and emotional discord that usually does more harm than good to the community.
At a time when the district should be focused on getting itself out of debt, raising money to build new schools, improving students' reading and math scores, and decreasing student-to-teacher ratios, it is remarkable that Milby chose to tackle this issue during his last few weeks in office.
The Supreme Court has made it very clear that no form of religious indoctrination is welcome in public schools. To meet the criteria set forth in the law, Bible studies must be presented as a form of literature, or one segment of a broader history curriculum, and the courses cannot promote one religion over another. Obviously, Milby's suggestion, which he presented as a possible way to raise the "consciousness of God" in schools, does not fit the court's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
Further, Milby admits he had held off on advancing his idea because he was concerned schools might have to teach beliefs other than Christianity. That mind-set cannot be interpreted any other way than as an attempt to promote one belief over another.
If Milby or other School Board members are compelled to bring Bible studies into the classroom, they should instruct Superintendent John Sanders to develop a comparative religion course that would give students a broad, even-handed view of the world's faiths, and how they have affected history, culture and art.
But to teach the Bible without including opposing viewpoints or a critical analysis of its historical accuracy should not be allowed in public schools. Curricula about religious faith must be neutral in order to accommodate the diversity of students, and non-inclusive lessons should not be delivered from a taxpayer-funded pulpit.
There is much to learn from school districts that already have wrestled with this hot-button issue. Lee County is one of the more recent and it already has spent about $15,000 on legal advice to defend its wrong-headed decision. Pinellas and Levy counties also have run into challenges from secular organizations.
It was imprudent of Milby to leave this at his colleagues' door as he makes his exit. Moreover, it appears self-indulgent for Milby, a former chaplain and theology teacher, because the board has had no requests for Bible studies from parents or clergy.
Hopefully, the notion will fade with Milby's departure and the remaining board members will not be obligated to engage in a disruptive and unnecessary controversy at a time when there are so many more pressing matters at hand.
There are many lessons, objective and subjective, to be learned from the Bible, but they should be taught at home and in religious institutions, not public schools.
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