Written by Don Byrd
The question of whether “Bible literacy” classes may and should be taught in public schools (two very different questions) has gained new attention in the last few days thanks to a presidential tweet cheering the idea. The renewed interest is also surely due to the advancements of Project Blitz, a coordinated effort to introduce legislation at the state level that increases the presence of religion in public spaces. Implicit in this push, and often explicitly stated as the reason behind it, is the desire by some advocates to “return” religion generally (and Christianity specifically) to a more prominent place in our public institutions.
Academic study of religious texts, presented in a religiously neutral manner, however, is already protected under law, calling into question the motivation of those pushing such state legislation. As BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler noted, the stated purpose of Project Blitz includes the desire to “promote a particular religious point of view;” adding, “[a]nything that might send a message to our children that you have to be a Christian to be a full American is extremely problematic.”
Writing for the Washington Post this week, religious studies professor Mark Chancey also provides some insightful background and perspective on the historical issue of studying the Bible in public schools. He draws on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Abington Township v. Schempp, in which the court struck down a practice of daily Bible recitations in public school as unconstitutional. Chancey explains that the court did not go as far as some would have you believe. In fact, the opinion explicitly discusses appropriate uses of religious text in a neutral academic setting in public schools.
Those who long to make the Bible the cornerstone of public education often claim that the 1963 ruling effectively banned the Bible from public education.
This is a myth.
Far from banning the Bible in public schools, Schempp explicitly endorsed studying about it in nonsectarian, academic manner:
“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.”
In a pluralistic democracy and an age of globalization, students and citizens need familiarity not only with sacred texts but also with other expressions of religion, and not only with those religions grounded in the Bible but also with the world’s other great traditions. Students also need an understanding that, contrary to Project Blitz, religious freedom means equal respect for the religious and nonreligious alike.