A course that treats objectively the history and significance of the Bible would be a wonderful idea, and to the best of my knowledge many such classes exist in US public schools. Whatever religion we follow, much of the cultural references we share come from the Bible, and an understanding of it is vital to an understanding of Western civilization in general.
There is a fine line to walk, however. Any treatment of the Bible in a public school course must be completely neutral. It must not endorse any part of the Bible as true, particularly not any part that pertains to a statement of religious faith or dogma. The Bible must remain squarely on the sectarian side of Thomas Jefferson’s wall, and teachers in public classrooms must reveal it only through windows of objectivity.
This standard has not always been met. In 2005, the Ector County School Board instituted a course called “The Bible in History and Literature.” The course was not objective, in that it favored the King James Version of the Bible over the countless others used by other denominations, and promoted a particular religious viewpoint. The ACLU challenged the curriculum, and it was overturned in March.
A similar case is brewing in Virginia. The Craig County School Board has approved the implementation of a Bible studies course, one produce by the same organization as that which published the curriculum struck down in the Texas case. As the Texas curriculum was found to violate the establishment clause, the ACLU has determined to investigate the new Virginia course.
The organization responsible for both curricula (which may prove to be the same) is the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Their mission statement seems innocuous enough, but the ruling in the Texas case demonstrates the need for caution.
There’s no denying the importance of the Bible to Western culture. It forms a large part of the backbone of our shared culture, of the idioms we use in our speech, even of the legends that shape our understanding of our place in the universe (though I feel that last is changing.) For all these reasons an objective Bible Studies course would be a welcome addition to a public school. But his objectivity must be maintained with a restless diligence. The alternative is the loss of church and state separation, and ultimately the loss of freedom of religion.