This past summer marked the fiftieth anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision in Abington Township v. Schempp. That case is most famous for its prohibition of school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools, but it also figures prominently in American educational history for its endorsement of the academic, nonsectarian study of religion in that same setting. The Court famously noted:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

As a biblical scholar who teaches about religion for a living, no one has to convince me that the Bible is worthy of study, as are other aspects of religion beyond sacred texts and other religious traditions beyond those that utilize the Bible. There are strong civic reasons for teaching about religion in K-12 contexts: Religious literacy is essential for the smooth functioning of a pluralistic democracy in a shrinking world. The issue is not only understanding the world “out there,” beyond American shores, but also understanding our own society, which is increasingly religiously diverse. Biblical literacy is a key component of this much-needed broader religious literacy.

The issue of how public schools teach about religion is relatively under-studied, but it is clear that confusion abounds on the question of how to meet the Court’s benchmark of objective, secular presentation. For these reasons, I welcomed an invitation to study public school Bible courses for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog group. Using open records requests, TFN obtained course materials from sixty Bible courses taught in Texas high schools in the 2011-2012 school year; they asked me to examine them for academic quality and adherence to the legal guidelines offered by various federal courts.

The resulting report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-2012 (a follow-up to an earlier study), found that most Texas Bible courses crossed the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion. While many problems appeared to be missteps by well-intentioned and otherwise well-trained teachers, others reflected overt sectarian agendas.

The syllabus for one course, for example, identified its objective as “to consider the teachings of the New Testament through the lens of faith,” and students read books on Christian apologetics. Many courses depicted the Bible as straightforward, unproblematic history—even the miracle stories. A PowerPoint slide from one district illustrates this approach, instructing students that “Christ’s resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space – that it was, in reality, historical and not mythological (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16)” [sic]. Many courses presented traditional Christian theological interpretations of scripture as normative readings, going so far as to teach students that the Tanakh/Old Testament supernaturally predicted the coming of Jesus. (When a New York Times reporter questioned this approach, pointing out to one teacher that Jews do not believe that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies, the teacher curiously countered, “In New York, they don’t.”) Pseudoscience made its way into some courses, such as those that advocated creationism or the belief that racial origins can be traced to Noah.

The good news is that other Texas courses succeeded admirably in treating the biblical material in ways that respected constitutional limits and diverse religious sensibilities. How did they do it?

  • They relied on resources informed by a broad range of biblical scholarship, not just the scholars of one particular religious community.
  • They informed students about the unique features of the Bibles of different traditions (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox).
  • They were intentional in exposing students to biblical translations associated with different religious traditions.
  • They were sensitive to the different ways various religious communities have interpreted particular passages and did not present one tradition’s interpretation as normative.
  • They recognized the importance of biblical texts as ancient historical sources without lapsing into a tone of assumed historicity.
  • They discussed the Bible’s moral and theological claims without presenting them as authoritative for the students.
  • They recognized that the Bible is not a science textbook.
  • They treated Judaism as a religion in its own right and not merely as the foil or background for Christianity.

Several resources are available to help school districts and teachers create legally and academically sound courses like these latter ones. The Society of Biblical Literature, the primary professional society for biblical scholars, offers Bible Electives in Public Schools: A Guide as well as an e-zine for secondary school teachers, Teaching the Bible. The American Academy of Religion, the professional society for the broader field of religious studies, has developed Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States. The First Amendment Center, Bible Literacy Project, and Society of Biblical Literature jointly provide The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide. Such tools can help districts teach the Good Book right—and help students develop an informed perspective on the Bible and its ongoing cultural relevance.