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The newest textbook controversy isn’t about Harry Potter or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but a volume that has divided public schools for 150 years–the Bible.

The Tennessee Legislature recently passed a bill authorizing the state board of education to adopt a curriculum for a state-funded elective course on non-sectarian, academic study of the Bible and its influence on literature, art, music, culture and politics.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, hasn’t indicated whether he will sign the bill. If he does, Tennessee will join 35 other states that offer the option of enrolling in non-denominational biblical literacy classes.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, says the Bible is the most influential book in Western civilization, but Americans are increasingly biblically illiterate. Yet only 17 school districts in Tennessee’s 95 counties currently offer a Bible elective in high schools.

Herron, a former United Methodist minister who appeared in the recent Baptist Center for Ethics DVD “Golden Rule Politics,” said that is because many school districts fear getting sued.

“This legislation can lead to safe, alternative ways for schools to teach the most important and popular book in history,” Herron said in an interview with the Jackson Sun. “We want the board of education to adopt a curriculum where they can use it and know that the curriculum is constitutional.”

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, told EthicsDaily.com he believes such laws are not needed, because school districts already are allowed to teach about the Bible. But he acknowledged there is a lot of confusion about what is and is not constitutional.

Haynes was one of 41 scholars to review the 2005 textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, published by the Bible Literacy Project consistent with Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, an earlier book co-authored by Haynes and Baptist church-state expert Oliver Thomas.

Haynes said Bible teaching has been controversial since the beginning of the common school movement, when Catholics and Protestants fought over whose version of Scripture would be used. In the 21st century, those battles have wound up in courtrooms in the form of lawsuits over Bible courses and clubs.

Recently such disputes have spilled over into legislatures. Lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia and Texas all discussed Bible-teaching bills pitting Democrats who favored including protections against religious indoctrination against Republicans who wanted the Bible interpreted only in ways that agree with the Religious Right.

The Tennessee bill has critics on both the right and left. Liberals fear it is a back-door attempt to bring religion into public schools, while religious conservatives don’t want a government-mandated curriculum like The Bible and Its Influence but prefer to teach directly from the Bible, making it easier for teachers to delve into doctrinal issues.

Most agree that students are at a disadvantage if they try to read and analyze works like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden without the groundwork of understanding that it relies heavily on the Genesis story about Abel and Cain. The devil, critics say, is in implementation.

“Whether a Bible course can be done legally and maintaining government neutrality in Tennessee is a big question,” Charles Sumner of the Nashville chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com. “The climate here would make anyone suspicious that individual teachers would in many cases use it for indoctrinating and even proselytizing.”

Sumner said recent controversy over Bible teaching in schools in Wilson County show that some parts of the state might abuse the law, and monitoring its application would be difficult.

“The Bible as literature could be a worthy course,” Sumner said. “One is not educated without understanding many of the biblical allusions throughout literature.” He said he would also support a course on comparative religions.

But AU says the current bill is “constitutionally problematic” and urged the governor to veto it.

“SB 4104 contains several large loopholes that would allow a sectarian curriculum to slip past the bill’s superficial and insignificant requirements,” the organization said in an action alert. “While the bill states that new curricula must follow the limits set out by the Constitution, it also officially endorses ANY existing curriculum–even one that is unconstitutional–and allows other districts to adopt that curriculum without question.”

Herron defended the bill as a “common sense” approach that honors both the Bible and the Constitution. Tennessee’s attorney general said the bill meets all three criteria required by the Supreme Court for a law to be constitutional.

“The bill has a secular purpose–to authorize an elective public school course that is a nonreligious, nonsectarian, academic study of the Bible and its impact in literature, art, music, culture and politics,” Attorney General Robert Cooper wrote in an opinion. “The bill’s principal or primary effect should neither advance nor inhibit religion. Nor does the bill appear, either in intent or in actual effect, to foster ‘excessive government entanglement’ with religion.”

“Our government school teachers cannot constitutionally preach the Bible, but they can teach the Bible” Herron and House sponsor Mark Maddox said in an op-ed in The Tennessean.

“Why not allow students to study history’s greatest book and understand how it has changed our world?” they asked. “Then maybe those biblically literate young people will go out and change their world.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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