November 1997: The Oklahoman

November 19, 1997, Wednesday CITY EDITION

Schools in City Join in National Bible Debate Church, State Separation at Issue

BYLINE: Bobby Ross Jr., Staff Writer

SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 955 words

By deciding to offer high school elective courses in Bible and
religion, the Oklahoma City School District has joined a
national debate.

The issue: Does teaching about Jacob, Jonah and Jesus in public
school classrooms violate the separation of church and state?

A newly approved Bible elective in Fort Myers, Fla., schools has
made national headlines. The Rev. Wayne Robinson, minister of the
700-member Unitarian Universalist Church there, is one of the
outspoken opponents threatening a Florida lawsuit.

The former Oklahoma minister, who sued to remove a Christian
cross from Edmond’s city seal, said the First Amendment is clear:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of
religion.”

He questioned whether any instructor could teach objectively
about the Old Testament and the New Testament.

“If you had a devout Muslim talking about the Gospel of Matthew,
he would discuss it much differently than say, the pastor of the
First Assembly of God or the First Baptist Church,” Robinson said.

However, according to Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum
First Amendment Center, the U.S. Supreme Court “has indicated many
times that teaching about religion, as distinguished from religious
indoctrination, is an important part of a complete education.

“The public school’s approach to religion in the curriculum must
be academic, not devotional,” the Vanderbilt center states in a
pamphlet.

Jim Huff, Oklahoma president of Americans United for Separation
of Church and State, said Tuesday public schools can – and should -
teach about religion.

Huff taught Bible and religion history in Oklahoma City schools
for more than a decade before the district abandoned those
electives in the early 1980s.

“Students ran the full spectrum of religious conviction, from
Catholic to various Protestant churches to students of no faith,”
Huff said. “It was just a very good subject for students to become
aware of the characters and events of the Bible.

“It was not my job to teach the doctrinal meaning of those
characters and events. That was something left up to the home and
the local faith groups.”

In a unanimous vote late Monday, the Oklahoma City School Board
approved including “Survey of the Bible” and “Religions of the
World” in the 1998-99 Secondary School Course Offering Guides. High
school juniors and seniors can choose the courses.

Now the district staff will develop course curriculums.

Assistant Superintendent Guy Sconzo said good teachers know how
to teach objectively and let students know “when discussions or
lectures are evolving into something that is one person’s
perspective.”

Still, Angela Goodwin, mother of two Capitol Hill High School
students, doesn’t want the public schools teaching her daughters
about the Bible.

“I don’t think school is the place to teach it,” said Goodwin,
who is active at St. Mary’s CME Church. “We want to know they’re
taught the right thing. You wouldn’t know if they’re getting the
full view of the Bible.”

Stafford North, an Oklahoma Christian University Bible
professor, said students need religion instruction even more than
Shakespeare.

“It’s important that such courses be taught from a neutral
standpoint,” North said. “But those that do not know the Bible
would not be well rounded in the background of our culture.”

He added: “We need to know the history of many religions – the
Muslims, the Hindu religion, Judaism, Christianity. “

About 18 percent of the nation’s 16,000 school districts offer
some type of religious teaching, according to USA Today.

State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett could not say Tuesday
how many Oklahoma high schools offer such electives.

“It’s not really unusual,” she said. “Some of that is studied
under the social studies umbrella, and some of that is studied
under the English and literature area.”

Norman attorney Micheal Salem, who handles cases for the
American Civil Liberties Union, agreed public schools can offer
objective classes about religion.

But Salem asked why people who don’t trust government to build
roads right would let government teach children about important
spiritual matters.

“I would think people of genuine and sincere religious beliefs
… don’t want government officials teaching religion in any
fashion,” Salem said Tuesday.

Various motives – including conservative Christians pushing to
bring religion to the classroom – have caused an upsurge in public
schools offering Bible courses, said Charles Haynes of Nashville,
Tenn.

Haynes is the Vanderbilt center’s senior scholar for religious
freedom.

“But whatever the motive, it’s certainly constitutional if it’s
done right. … You have a number of people there (in Oklahoma) who
know how to do it right,” Haynes said, specifically mentioning
Huff, the former Oklahoma City teacher.

Huff helped develop the language describing the newly approved
Oklahoma City courses.

That language says “Survey of the Bible” students will examine
the characters, events and accounts in both the Old Testament and
the New Testament and study the Bible’s development.

“Religions of the World” students will study religions including
Judaism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Hinduism and
other religions.

As in Oklahoma City, Fort Myers officials stress that the
religion electives are voluntary. Only about 150 of the Florida
district’s 13,500 high school students have expressed an interest.

But Robinson, who left Edmond nearly two years ago, refuses to
call the courses voluntary.

“I don’t think it’s elective that you can pay your taxes to
support that,” Robinson said.