ODESSA, Tex.--One can’t wander far on the oil-rich plains of Ector County without a sign from God. From sun-bleached billboards proclaiming his love above four-lane roads crowded with pickup trucks to inspirational marquees outside of blond-brick churches, a Christian presence nearly defines this West Texas town halfway between Dallas and El Paso.
But last May the American Civil Liberties Union and eight parents accused the county’s school district of taking the message too far: into the public schools. Now, in the wake of nationwide debates that raged over creation science in biology classes, the ACLU is challenging Ector County Independent School District over its decision to implement what the ACLU sees as a sectarian Bible as History class in two high schools.
And with the filing of a complaint in a federal courthouse, Ector County has become the latest battleground in the nation’s ideological wars.
It may not be the only battle, though.
Similar courses are taught around the country. In Fairmont, W.V., the “Bible course,” as it’s often called, is taught by a full-time pastor at the local Church of Christ. In Raleigh, N.C., a guest evangelist preached to students a vehemently anti-Islamic message. And while legal precedent supports offering such courses, it also compels freedom from sectarian bias.
“The key questions will be about whether there’s room for critical argument about [biblical] passages,” said Christopher Eisgruber, provost of Princeton University and co-author of the recent “Religious Freedom and the Constitution” (Harvard University Press, 2007).
“Does the curriculum make it possible for students to criticize, to propagate a religious view to the extent that there are multiple perspectives? Does it help them understand or does it pick one?”
Nearly everyone involved in the debate agrees on one simple idea: A well-rounded education includes study about the Bible.
“Most people would agree that if it could be done the right way, having a course about the Bible and religion could be very valuable,” Eisgruber said. “Many consider it to be one of our most important cultural artifacts and sources of moral authority.”
But in Odessa, Ector County’s seat with a population near 100,000, the ACLU believes it is being done the wrong way. It argues the curriculum, published by Greensboro, N.C.-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, was chosen because it favors one interpretation of Christianity over others.
This, the ACLU contends, breaches the contentious divide between church and state. The district argues that its school board chose the curriculum because it offered the best education and the best fit for Ector County students.
Nearly 400 other school districts across the country have chosen the same curriculum, according to NCBCPS, whose board of directors and advisors includes outspoken members of the religious right: televangelist D. James Kennedy; actor and martial arts star Chuck Norris; and Mathew Staver, dean of the law school at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
Many districts that haven’t chosen the NCBCPS curriculum have chosen to write their own or use one published in 2006 by the Front Royal, Va.-based Bible Literacy Project, a group that prides itself on endorsements from organizations such as the American Jewish Congress and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Popularity of the courses has been fueled in part by state legislation. In the past year, Texas and Georgia passed “Bible Bills” making it easier for districts to offer the classes; Alabama and Missouri have considered similar bills.
Regardless of the district or the curriculum, there are broader and more ideologically driven issues at play, such as the role of the Bible in the founding of the United States; whether the courts or the community should decide the content of the course; and—most basically—how a subject as sensitive as religion is best taught.
Whether those issues play out in the federal courts of West Texas or the classrooms and school board meetings of places like Fairmont and Raleigh, N.C., the outcomes could help define—yet again—the role of religion in America’s classrooms.
FROM BEHIND A linoleum countertop in his machine-shop storefront on the edge of Odessa, James Clark appears an unlikely activist. He’s soft-spoken with a deep Texas drawl, more likely to shrug his shoulders than stand on a soapbox.
But last spring when the ACLU threatened his son’s Bible course at Odessa High School, Clark quietly forged a small campaign to fight back. He spent $500 to print 1,600 bumper stickers, reading: “We Support the ECIDS Bible Curriculum.” All but a small stack on the countertop had been given away by mid-July, with a second order to arrive soon.
According to Clark and many others in the community, the course works well for Ector County students.
“I’m not here to tell anybody how to send their kids to school or anything else,” he said. “I guess they’ll do what’s best for their kids [in other parts of the country], and we’ll do what’s best for our kids here.”
Clark’s position underscores the ideological divide over who decides what’s best for a community’s students: local officials or the federal courts.
Across town, Lori White lives in a new subdivision with giant homes, manicured lawns and walled-in swimming pools. A sporty BMW sits outside her house displaying a “Texas Democrat” bumper sticker. As a plaintiff in the lawsuit and president of the local chapter of the ACLU, she’s far less convinced than Clark that the NCBCPS Bible course is best for Ector County’s children.
“I’m a Christian, so I have no problem with the Bible being taught in the public school, especially the Bible as literature,” White said. “It seems perfectly normal to me that you would bring in the Bible and have discussions just like you would with any kind of other literature. But these people don’t see it that way. You have to understand they believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible.”
By “they,” White referred to what she says is the religiously conservative contingent responsible for bringing the NCBCPS curriculum to Ector County—a group she believes included district officials at the time the curriculum was chosen. A portion of the ACLU’s 2007 complaint alleges some of those officials, motivated by religious fervor, ignored the recommendations of a curriculum committee in their drive to adopt the NCBCPS curriculum.
Only one district official, school board member Doyle Woodall, chose to comment. Former Superintendent Wendell Sollis and then-school board President Randy Rives refused to discuss the issue.
According to Woodall, when it came time to choose a curriculum for the Bible course, he thoroughly studied two options put to the trustees: the Bible Literacy Project and NCBCPS. He voted for the NCBCPS curriculum because, he said, he appreciated the fact that the textbook was the King James Version of the Bible and therefore offered greater impact than the BLP, which he likened to Cliff’s Notes.
Religious motivations, he said, did not influence the board’s decision. “I wouldn’t begin to tell you what the motivation of the people who brought the petition to the school board was,” he said, referring to locals who rallied for the course. “If it was to get religion or a certain philosophical viewpoint, they were surely mistaken if that’s what they thought we were voting on, because it certainly wasn’t.”
Despite community-wide chatter, the course was far less thrilling than the debate surrounding it, said Emily Bradford, a 17-year-old student who took the Bible course at Ector County’s Permian Basin High School last year. When she signed up, Bradford expected a rigorous history course; what she got was more like “things you learn in church when you’re in second grade,” she said.
Bradford, who grew up in Odessa without a religious affiliation, said she never felt like her teacher, a retired minister, preached to her. “My teacher was almost scared to teach,” she said. “There was so much controversy surrounding the course, he didn’t go in depth.”
That kind of watered-down academic experience is anathema to most educators, but it is a potential pitfall of a controversial curriculum.
The curriculum central to the Odessa debate got its start 14 years ago and 1,500 miles away.
TUCKED IN A subdivision in a well-heeled part of Greensboro, N.C., the unmarked office of the National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools doubles as the home of its president, Elizabeth Ridenour.
Ridenour, who had worked as a commercial real estate broker and paralegal before founding NCBCPS, became interested in the legality of Bible curricula when she met a North Carolina educator whose “school had been duped by the separation of church and state,” she said bitterly. Her subsequent research inspired an ambition, advertised on her Web site and in promotional materials: “to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children” through high school Bible classes.
Legally, there appears room in public education for Biblical instruction. In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court, while ruling against devotional use of the Bible in public school classrooms, seemed to support instructional use. “It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” wrote Justice Tom C. Clark in the 8-1 opinion.
The high court added that such study can be consistent with the First Amendment “when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” Several U.S. District Court cases have echoed this decision, consistently finding that the Bible is not the problem; how it is taught determines whether a course passes constitutional muster.
So what’s the fuss all about? The NCBCPS is not under legal attack—it is not, after all, breaking any laws by publishing a curriculum. It is, however, under scholarly attack from educators who question its academic integrity and worry that a poor curriculum lends itself more easily to sectarian teaching and cheapens the value of religious study.
One of the most outspoken critics is Mark Chancey, assistant professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Chancey, an expert in New Testament studies and early Judaism, says he is likely the first professional Bible scholar to have seen the curriculum, entitled “The Bible in History and Literature.”
He reviewed a 2005 copy for a report published by the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that identifies itself as “a mainstream voice to counter the religious right.”
“There was nothing remotely scholarly about the first version I saw,” Chancey said. “It was riddled with errors, extensively plagiarized. There were whole pages cut and pasted off the Internet.”
In his August 2005 report, published by the Texas Freedom Network, Chancey noted that the curriculum does not explicitly urge students to become Christians, but he said that it presents the Bible from one theological perspective—that of a conservative Protestant believer. The curriculum treats the Bible as a divinely inspired book whose historical claims are completely accurate, he said—a view held passionately by evangelical Christians, but not held by all Christian denominations or by Jews.
One example: The version Chancey read suggested that “documented research through NASA” proves the story in Joshua 10 that the sun stood still so that Israelites would have enough time to defeat the Canaanites. Chancey explained that a folklorist named Jan Harold Brunvand traced the legend of the lost day from 1890 to its latest incarnation, born in the 1960s, and he pointed to a page on NASA’s own Web site that debunks the myth.
After Chancey’s report was published, the NCBCPS issued a press release, calling Chancey an “anti-religion extremist.” But they listened: About a month later, the NCBCPS released an updated curriculum that addressed many of Chancey’s objections. Gone was the mention of NASA’s research regarding the “lost day” legend. Gone was the description of the Bible as a collection of 66 books—a description that applies to the Protestant Bible but certainly not to the Jewish Bible or even the Catholic Bible.
While Chancey said he believes the revisions are a baby step in the right direction, he hardly deems them sufficient. He also noted in his report, for example, that NCBCPS fails to name the authors, unusual for an academic curriculum. Further, while the NCBCPS claims to have courses in 37 states, it refuses to reveal the names of all but a handful of those districts—Brady, Tex. and Forsyth/Winston-Salem, N.C., among them.
Kelly Shackelford, an attorney defending the Ector County school district, explained why: “There are groups, the ACLU and others, that would like to sniff around and make trouble for districts, to use [the list] to try to trash all of the courses around the country.”
Debatable material remains in sections such as “Unit 17: The Bible in History,” concerning in part the founding of the United States. Using language reminiscent of a thesis paper, the teacher’s guide makes the claim that the Bible inspired “34 percent of the direct quotes in the political writings of the Founding Era.”
It goes on: “The fact that the Founders quoted the Bible more frequently than any other source is indisputably a significant commentary on its importance in the foundation of our government. In fact, some have even conceded that ‘historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our Founding document.’” The quote is not attributed to anyone.
Criticism doesn’t seem to faze Ridenour, a diminutive woman with a fiery personality.
“It’s a bunch of lies,” she said. “Their side is desperate to try and stop us. It’s the liberals, or the more liberal scholars that might take a more critical opinion. But the scholars that wrote that say it’s totally accurate, so you’ll always get varying opinions.”
HIRAM SASSER TOO is eager to quiet the critics. He sits behind a large desk of polished wood in a clean, unremarkable office in Plano, Tex. He is brawny, with a graying crew cut, bright blue eyes and an air of confidence unique for a 31-year-old. On his walls, beside a plaque of the Ten Commandments, hang accolades and degrees, including his J.D. from the Oklahoma City University School of Law, where Sasser graduated in 2002.
Since then, Sasser has worked for the conservative Liberty Legal Institute, a non-profit firm that claims to protect First Amendment rights for citizens and religious groups. The firm provides its services pro bono to all of its clients, including the Ector County school district. Its office suite is decorated with newspaper clippings chronicling the firm’s cases: “Religion returns to senior center,” reads one from the Dallas Morning News. And another, from the Washington Post: “Evangelicals use courts to fight restrictions on Christmas tidings.”
Now the firm’s director of litigation, Sasser called the Odessa suit “a joke.”
“Where is the student who was wronged?” he asked. Sasser’s hunch is that the ACLU brought the case because its lawyers don’t like Bible courses in general, and they are hoping that a sound defeat in Odessa would dissuade educators across the country from buying the NCBCPS curriculum.
Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, wouldn’t go so far. “We’re certainly not blind to the broader circumstances,” she said. “But we litigate on the facts as we see them.”
When asked about critics’ complaints of sloppy scholarship and a lack of clear authorship or review by academics, Sasser seemed unconcerned. “Number one: This is a high school elective course, so it’s very surface-level knowledge,” he said. “It’s sort of like, ‘Can you name the brothers of Joseph?’ It’s an informational course.” When pressed, he pointed to Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and an expert on constitutional law.
In 1999, Ridenour hired Robinson and McElwee, a law firm in Charleston, West Virginia, to determine whether her course fit legal constraints. George, who occasionally did work for the firm, was one of the lawyers who took a look at the curriculum.
“We concluded that while it was not a complete dead loss, it did need some revisions,” George said. The firm proposed changes, which Ridenour made. “We looked at it with the changes, and it was perfectly within our established constitutional principles.”
The letter the attorneys subsequently provided Ridenour is still on the National Council’s Web site, under the tab, “Is this legal?” However, George explained, if the curriculum has changed—which it has at least once—neither he nor his letter can speak to whether the curriculum is legal. Ridenour remains fiercely confident that it is.
With or without another firm’s seal of approval, Sasser is convinced the curriculum can stand up to any legal challenge. More than three months into the proceedings, the two sides have yet to reach any resolution. The case is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Ector County school officials are confident enough in the outcome of the suit that they’re continuing to offer the course at both Odessa and Permian Basin high schools this coming fall.
AROUND THE COUNTRY, with varying levels of adherence, other teachers continue to use the NCBCPS curriculum as well. Legally, the Ector County case cannot soon change that fact anywhere but in Ector County. But it might pave the way for similar suits, especially if society’s eye becomes more trained on Bible classes.
Two seemingly innocuous courses, one in Fairmont, W.V., and one in Raleigh, N.C., underscore the nearness of controversy, its ferocity upon arrival, and the extreme care necessary to keep it at bay.
By his own admission, Melvin Rogers is just waiting to be fired.
“Eventually someone is going to get upset,” he said about the Bible as History and Literature elective he has taught one period a day for the last two years at North Marion High School in Fairmont. Like his colleagues in Odessa, Rogers uses the NCBCPS curriculum. Unlike his Texas counterparts, Rogers’ salary is paid entirely by North Marion Bible Class, a loose organization of churches and individuals who contribute funds to support it.
When he’s not teaching the high school course, Rogers, 35, is a preacher at Oakwood Road Church of Christ in Fairmont. It was his training at the Church of Christ’s West Virginia School of Preaching, he said, that qualified him for the job at North Marion. If there is reason to question if religious training qualifies a person to teach about the Bible in a public high school, Rogers seemed unaware.
“I’ve had really good Bible training,” he said.
Rogers described the course as an overview of the Bible, an opportunity to show how the Bible connects to art, history and literature. The NCBCPS curriculum, he believes, is “way too vague.” Rogers prefers specifics.
“It skips over all the stuff that people argue about,” he said. “These are teenagers; they don’t want the sugar-coated versions.” To combat the curriculum’s vanilla-flavored approach, Rogers came up with “Free Fridays,” a day for students to ask Rogers any questions they want, such as: Is Satan an angel? Why did people get stoned in Jesus’ day? And what does the Bible really say about homosexuality?
“I need one day of the week when I can answer them honestly without feeling like I’m going to be censored,” he said. “I tell them what I believe, but say, ‘You can take it or you can leave it.’ I don’t want to press my religious views and what I believe on them at all.”
The idea for the Bible class came from a community member who committed to raising the funds necessary to pay for the course, according to Marion County’s assistant superintendent, Thomas Deadrick. “Much to my surprise, quite frankly, I have not received one phone call or complaint,” he said.
Neither had school officials in Wake County, N.C., where for 25 years high schools have been teaching a Bible as History class, using their own curriculum and continually striving, by their own estimation, for the constitutional standard of religious education, not indoctrination.
But this year, Robert Escamilla snapped the streak, a reminder, perhaps, of two things: Even the best curriculum can’t teach itself, and although judges have the power to rule in the courtroom, teachers use their own judgment each day in the classroom.
The controversy surrounding Escamilla, 49, ignited with the invitation last February of an especially insensitive guest. Kamil Solomon arrived in class like a firearm. Loaded with pamphlets decrying Islam and attributing the prophet Muhammad’s inspiration to Satan, Solomon, an Egyptian-American Christian evangelist, set off a firestorm.
A bit of a renegade in the classroom, and not committed to following Wake County’s curriculum, Escamilla didn’t find Solomon’s presentation to be unseemly or misleading.
“It’s impossible to present all of the intricate, specific details of every little statement,” he said. “There’s no way.” Escamilla mentioned the large number of students in class and time constraints of an eight-period day. “You have things like that come out without the full context of explanation behind them.”
In the days following Solomon’s presentation, several things happened: First, Escamilla posted a note to Solomon’s Web site, stating, “Thank you so much for coming and speaking so effectively to our students, helping them to open their minds to see more light.” He signed it, “May God continue to richly bless you and to powerfully use you to give Him much glory. Your brother and friend in Christ, Robert.”
Second, in class, riled students pressed Escamilla on Solomon’s caution to young women against marrying a Muslim man. Student Virginia Dresser, 16, who recommended Escamilla invite Solomon to class after hearing him speak at her church, was there.
“A lot of girls got mad,” Dresser said. “Mr. Escamilla told them, ‘Well, go marry a Muslim man then. Just don’t complain to Mr. Solomon about it.’ I thought that was pretty funny.”
School administrators were far less amused. They suspended Escamilla for 90 days and, after an internal investigation, eventually transferred him out of prestigious Enloe High School and into the district’s alternative school—a move Escamilla considers a capitulation of the school system to political correctness at the cost of free speech and solid education.
“Sometimes people say things that other people disagree with and they might feel offended by, but that’s life, and it’s education,” Escamilla said. “If we really take this thing to the max—no denigration allowed—all right, great, that means no history allowed, no social studies allowed.” And his point is this: If teachers avoid any potential offense, then students will never analyze the Civil Rights movement, the Crusades, slavery or the Atomic bomb.
Ann Majestic, a lawyer for Wake County Public Schools and a defender of the district’s curriculum, disagreed. “A teacher doesn’t have the right to decide to have a speaker who’s not speaking directly related to the curriculum,” she said, unable to hide her disdain. “Something that might have free speech protections outside of [the classroom] wouldn’t within the curricular context.”
Across town at Southeast Raleigh High School, social studies teacher and department chair Abby Stotsenberg, herself an avowed conservative Christian, exhibits little of Escamilla’s verbal brawn. While both express commitment to a space where all ideas are respected, Stotsenberg stresses her consideration for how the material is presented.
“It’s hard not to project my own views, so my goal, what I try really hard to do is present the schools of thought,” she said.
She pulls out two bursting three-ring binders containing the Wake County curriculum. Among the activities is a project analyzing the many court cases dictating the role of religion in the classroom, and the different rights bestowed upon teachers and students.
“We break down the First Amendment,” she said. “We talk about the free exercise clause and the establishment clause and exactly what that means, and then we start fitting in the actual court cases that matter. You have to. And mostly it pertains to me, as their teacher. They’re more free to discuss their own views, but I am not.”
Her disdain for the NCBCPS curriculum, a binder sitting unused on her bookshelf, was obvious.
“If schools are using this they’re not serving kids in a good way,” Stotsenberg said. “They’re overlooking lots of faiths and they’re not challenging the kids to really examine it for themselves and in a meaningful way that they can embrace it and know that that’s a decision that they came to on their own.”
She took a jab at its suggested teaching methods: “That’s what bothered me before I noticed the less-than-neutral nature of the material. There’s nothing about it that’s best practice—no good methods or projects, no activities.”
NCBCPS spokeswoman and staff development coordinator Tracie Kiesling defended the methods.
“I think people are entitled to their opinions, but I think the with the newest teaching styles, unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of the threading in of humanist secularism, and so I’m not in agreement with all of the newest teaching styles,” she said.
“Everything we recommend comes from a background of being very well documented.”
Stotsenberg credits Wake County’s curriculum, which she believes incorporates the very elements the NCBCPS curriculum is missing, with promoting a classroom in line with the U.S. Constitution.
The differences between Stotsenberg’s and Escamilla’s classrooms, less than a dozen miles apart, illustrate what experts believe happens all over the country: Bible courses are taught with varying degrees of constitutionality and academic rigor. Put simply, not every teacher strikes a balance: Many are either too eager to proselytize or unequipped to teach.
THESE PITFALLS DON'T have to plague high school courses about religion, said Professor Diane Moore, director of the Program in Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard University, the nation’s only teacher-training program within a divinity school.
Instead of battling it out in politically fueled skirmishes like the one in Odessa, educators and parents should take a hard look at what they want their public education to accomplish, Moore said.
“The issue is larger than the question about whether we’re going to offer a Bible class or a religious studies course,” said Moore, an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ Church. Because religion is gaining space in the public sphere, Moore said, students need to understand it not as a private matter but as an increasingly important force that influences politics, economics and culture, both in the U.S. and around the world.
But overcoming what Moore calls “a deeply embedded religious illiteracy” will be tough, she said, because religion is unlike other academic disciplines: “If I were to ask you about nuclear physics, you would say, ‘I don’t know much,’” she explained. “But people tend to be very confident about their assertions about religion in ways that they’re not about other subjects.” This hesitancy to admit ignorance, Moore said, only adds to the inherent challenges in teaching the course.
No other place in the country feels those challenges more acutely than the open plains of Ector County. And if the suit there indicates a rift between those who want more Christianity in the schools and those who do not, that rift may grow into a chasm as the same issue is fought in districts around the country.