Bible instruction in public schools has concerned groups devoted to the separation of church and state, and even many Christians wonder if Bible classes are constitutional. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that objective Bible instruction is appropriate in public schools, especially in light of the huge impact it has had on U.S. history and culture.
While the United States has had its share of atheists, agnostics, and members of a variety of world religions, America's heritage is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christianity. The Declaration of Independence depends on inalienable rights - inalienable because they were given by God. Our national motto "In God We Trust" goes back to the time of the Civil War, when it was first printed on American currency. It actually stretches farther back than that - to the War of 1812, when the Star Spangled Banner was written. The fourth verse of Francis Scott Key's song is less well known than the one we sing at baseball games:
"…Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust!'..."In fact, the very first governing document of the new world, The Mayflower Compact, gave stoutly religious reasons for sailing across the Atlantic and forming a government:
"Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick…"To deny America's religious heritage is not a separation of church and state, but is a rewriting of America's history.
This includes the way we educate our children. Several Supreme Court rulings have recognized the importance of the Bible in United States history. Federal and Supreme Court judges have stated that there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching the Bible in schools, as long as the instruction is approached in a religiously neutral manner.
In Zorach v. Clauson (1952) the Supreme Court recognized that, "[We] are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being…"
Later, in Abington Township v. Schempp (1963), the Court affirmed that sentiment, and stated that,
"The fact that the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God and that the unalienable rights of man were rooted in Him is clearly evidenced in their writings, from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitution itself. This background is evidenced today in our public life through the continuance in our oaths of office from the Presidency to the Alderman of the final supplication, 'So help me God'…"Justice Lewis Powell, in his Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) concurring opinion wrote:
As a matter of history, schoolchildren can and should properly be informed of all aspects of this Nation's religious heritage. I would see no constitutional problem if schoolchildren were taught the nature of the Founding Father's religious beliefs and how these beliefs affected the attitudes of the times and the structure of our government. Courses in comparative religion, of course, are customary and constitutionally appropriate. In fact, since religion permeates our history, a familiarity with the nature of religious beliefs is necessary to understand many historical, as well as contemporary, events.Not only is the Bible valuable for its influence on history or ethics or law, but the Bible itself may be taught. As the Supreme Court said in Schempp, "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities."
In Wiley v. Franklin, one federal judge wrote that the Bible is "replete" with material valuable for secular study, including "history, both ancient and modem, literature, poetry, music, art, government, social customs and practices, values, behavioral sciences."
The district court in Wiley wrote, "Thus the constitutional issue…is not the Bible itself, but rather the selectivity, emphasis, objectivity, and interpretive manner, or lack thereof, with which the Bible is taught."
The basic rule of thumb for religious instruction of any kind in the public school is that it be informational and not devotional in nature. Students can learn about Buddhism, but not be encouraged to meditate in the Buddhist fashion. Bible curriculum must be neutral in the way it presents Jewish or Christian history, presenting it in neither a worse nor a more favorable light than the Bible does itself. Public schools are free to take students through the Bible, to teach about its history and literature, its influence on modern law, or its allusions in modern literature, without either encouraging students to believe or disbelieve what it says. Public schools not only may, but should offer students courses on the Bible, since familiarity with the Bible is necessary for a well-rounded American education.
National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools - BibleInSchools.net
Abington v. Schempp - Cornell Law
Edwards v. Aguillard - Cornell Law
The Mayflower Compact - The History Place
The Star Spangled Banner lyrics - US History.org
Zorach v. Clauson - Cornell Law