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The Bible connection 

Studying the Bible in two school districts, under one superintendent.

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Only one public school in Arkansas teaches a Bible class for credit and the superintendent in that district was once on the losing end of a lawsuit that ended a Bible class in another Arkansas school. Apparently, he doesn’t like to talk about it.

Paul Human is the superintendent of the Texarkana School District. Arkansas High in the Texarkana District offers the only state-approved Bible course at an Arkansas public school, according to the state Education Department. State approval is required for any course that is taught for credit toward graduation. Julie Johnson Thompson, director of communications for the department, said there may be Arkansas schools that are teaching a Bible class without credit, although she didn’t know of any.

The Gentry School Board recently rejected a Bible course proposed for Gentry High School next fall. That course would not have been offered for credit, apparently, and Education Department approval had not been sought. The school board turned down the course anyway, after Superintendent Randy Barnett said he believed the course could not be taught in an impartial manner.

The course was designed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a controversial group based in North Carolina. The NCBCPS course has been adopted by some schools, disapproved by others, and been the subject of lawsuits, some successful, alleging that teaching the course violates the constitutional provision for separation of church and state.

Even a course that is not taught for credit toward graduation can be stopped through litigation. That happened in the Gravette School District in 1989, while Human was the superintendent. Federal Judge Morris S. Arnold ordered an end to Bible classes that had been taught in the Gravette schools for years.

(Human did not return called from the Times.)

Thompson said she understood that the course offered in Texarkana was not the same NCBCPS course that was turned down in Gentry. To be approved by the Education Department, a Bible class must be non-doctrinal in nature, focusing instead on literature and history, she said.

People for the American Way, a liberal group that favors separation of church and state, says of NCBCPS that “the real intent of the organization is to promote a religious, primarily Christian, doctrine. In addition, its manual refers to the separation of church and state as a ‘myth.’ ” The NCBCPS board of directors and advisory board have included Religious Right leaders such as televangelist D. James Kennedy.

The Texarkana School District recently won tentative approval from the state Board of Education for a charter school to be operated by the district and the Mount Grove Baptist Church. Aware of the church-state issue, the board said final approval would await an acceptable plan for allocating costs between the district and the church.

Charter schools are public schools that are exempted from some laws and regulations governing other public schools. To remain in operation, charter schools must meet certain performance goals.

At Gravette, elementary school children attended Bible classes during regular school hours in school buildings. The classes were taught by volunteers who were not employees of the school district and who supposedly were not acting on behalf of any church. No credit was given for the classes and attendance was voluntary. Parents who didn’t want their children to attend the Bible classes could arrange for their children to spend the time in the library or in some other instructional situation. Ninety-six percent of the children attended the Bible classes. Parents of one of the Gravette children filed suit alleging that the classes violated the First Amendment.

Arnold ruled for the plaintiffs. Quoting from his opinion:

“Even if defendants’ program has a primarily secular purpose, it is still unconstitutional if the principal effect of the courses is either to advance or inhibit religion. The Gravette Bible classes are plainly not wholly secular in character. Nevertheless, defendants argue that even if the Bible study program has religious elements, its primary effects are the secular ones of ‘building character, forming moral values, and developing a truly educated person.’

“Even on the relatively undeveloped state of the record before the court, it is quite clear that the course in question is predominantly religious and devotional in nature. Many of the songs taught in the course are religious, although some contain moral messages as well. For instance, the song ‘Countdown’ discusses Jesus’s Second Coming to Earth, the song ‘My B-I-B-L-E’ is self-explanatory, and ‘This Old Saint’ unapologetically states Christian dogma. The song ‘L.O.V.E.’ speaks of Jesus’s love for mankind, exemplified by his crucifixion. Even if nothing else was taught, these songs alone would render defendants’ program constitutionally infirm. But there is more. In classroom discussion … one of the teachers emphasized that ‘Jesus is our gateway to Heaven. He laid down his life for us so that we could get to Heaven. He is our shepherd and he wants us all to be one big flock of sheep.’ These teachings would seem to have no secular effect whatsoever.”

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