For decades, defenders of the wall separating church and state argued that the only way to teach religion in public schools is to teach about the subject -- the role and history of religion, rather than pure religious instruction. Now, after several years of work, a book purports to do that. The Bible Literacy Project published the 392-page textbook called "The Bible and its Influence." Several observers, including scholars and some First Amendment experts, endorsed it as a constitutionally acceptable way to teach religion in the public schools.
The book presents the Bible as literature, its backers say, and treats other religions with respect. If that book survives the inevitable court challenges, it could be a valuable addition to public education. But first some cautions.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says he is wary of such organized initiatives. "This effort may be well intentioned, but it comes at a time when organized pressure groups are seeking to undermine the religious neutrality of our schools."
It's a valid concern. The book needs to be reviewed with that possibility in mind. Furthermore, being sensitive to other religions may not be enough. While an understanding of the Bible may be especially helpful in comprehending Western life, students also need to know about the world. What about the Torah or the Koran? If schools make room for the Bible, will they inevitably have to include other religious texts? Shouldn't they? Finally, states and school districts need to devote the instructional time needed. Would it be compulsory? A course on its own, or a part of a social studies curriculum? And at a time of rising academic standards, what will have to give way? That's the standard that applies to virtually every other new subject.
Bottom line: This book should be considered with an open mind and understanding that while religion may be an appropriate subject, religious indoctrination is not.