Before the School Board voted to add the course entitled "The Bible in History and Literature," there was a short video presentation featuring actor Chuck Norris (you may recall he was a visible supporter of Mike Huckabee) and several county residents spoke about the need to have God in school. “Satan is here in Craig County High School,” said former Craig County School Board member Fay Powers. She added, “We fight Satan every day."
Several pastors spoke in favor of the new class. "We can teach the philosophy of evolution, but not the Bible” in school, said the Rev. Morris. Retired pastor Jerry King said he “would be surprised if this county turned it [the class] down, when we know the end is near.”
About a half dozen students also spoke in favor of a Bible class. Freshman Cody Rader spoke with emotion, "The law says we can do this," he said, and he complained about having to listen to the theory of evolution, while not believing it.
At least one school board member urged caution. Dawna McDowel pointed out that the Bible class “content is different than what is being hoped for.” She continued, “If we’re going to institute a course, we need to be very careful not to cross the line, and I mean VERY careful . . . forcing religion on others is against the Constitution.”
The course being offered is believed to be one promoted by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. It claims to have its curriculum in 1,800 high schools in nearly 450 school districts in 37 states.
The People for the American Way charges that ". . . the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) have attempted (sometimes successfully) to introduce Bible classes in public schools under the guise of improving students’ understanding of literature and history. But, more often, the real intent of the organization is to promote a religious, primarily Christian doctrine . . ."
According to a press release, the ACLU of Virginia has filed a Freedom of Information Act inquiry. The ACLU noted that a NCBCPS course in a Texas school district was dropped after parents filed suit. The school board opted for another course consistent with the United States Constitution. “Public schools in Craig County may teach students about religion and they can offer courses that include studying the Bible,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “But there’s a legal line between teaching about religion in public schools and promoting particular religious viewpoints. If Craig County’s teachers will be following the NCBCPS course recommendations, they will certainly be crossing that line.”
Some school divisions, notably in the Rockingham and Augusta counties, have "released time" programs where elementary students leave school (with parents' permission) for Bible classes taught just off the premises (sometimes a mobil classroom literally inches over the line). This arrangement was upheld in Zorach v. Clauson because the instruction was off school grounds and did not involve public funds.
Although legal, released time programs' entanglement with public schools' daily routines sometimes run afoul of the Constitution. For example, there have been a few cases of teachers inappropriately "bribing" students (who didn't want to go) with treats to go to the Bible class. In other schools, parents have felt community pressure to grant permission. In others, the Bible class has been treated and seen as part of the school curriculum.
Although not a legal issue, released time programs have recently come under fire as schools try to maximize instructional time for the Standards of Learning. When time for the arts or PE is cut back for more teaching to the high stakes tests, it is hard to justify time out of the school day for Bible study.
If Craig County HS goes forward with "The Bible in History and Literature" course, everyone from the superintendent to the teacher will be walking a fine legal line. Teaching about religion is okay. But, when it becomes preaching, even to a minor degree, it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The ACLU and others will be watching!