By Darren E. Weiss

One year after the Georgia legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill allowing elective public high school Bible courses, the state school board has approved a curriculum for this fall. The courses will be the nation’s first state-funded Bible classes, with the likelihood of lawsuits in the future.

Georgia’s school board approved the curriculum in March, but only a few of the state’s 180 school districts have agreed to offer the classes. The courses — “Literature and History of the Old Testament Era” and “Literature and History of the New Testament Era” — are offered as electives to high school juniors and seniors only.

Supporters say that fully understanding history and literature, from the Crusades to Shakespeare, requires knowledge of the Bible.

“There is so much about our civilization and culture that cannot be understood without understanding the role of Christianity,” said Robin Pennock, deputy schools superintendent of Muscogee County, where Bible classes have been approved for next fall. “The forces that the Bible represents are still woven totally through our literature and our civilization.”

Determining the number of school boards considering or adopting the classes is difficult, said Pennock, but Muscogee — which borders Alabama and includes the city of Columbus — is one of the state’s largest to do so.

The Georgia law allowing state-funded Bible classes won overwhelming, bipartisan approval last March in the state’s legislature. The classes must be taught “in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students.”

The Bible is currently taught in comparative religion classes in a handful of public schools throughout the nation. However, local districts fund those classes, not state governments.

“It has always been legal to have an academic course on the Bible, the problem is that only eight percent of the nation’s schools have been offering it because they haven’t felt comfortable with how to do it,” said Sheila Weber of the Bible Literacy Project, a non-profit group that encourages academic study of the Bible in public schools. To assist teachers, the Virginia-based organization published The Bible and Its Influence in 2005. It is now used as a student textbook for academic study of the Bible in 83 school districts in 30 states, Weber said.

Muscogee County high schools will prefer the King James version of the Bible as the course’s primary text, but will encourage students to bring in any version they like. The course will adopt The Bible and Its Influence as supplemental reading, Pennock said.

Critics say the courses will walk a thin line between objective and subjective instruction and could face litigation.

“We have some concerns that these classes could violate the separation of church and state if they are taught in a way that furthers a certain sectarian perspective,” said Rob Boston of the nonprofit, nonsectarian organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “When you take the Bible and corner that off into a special class, you’re walking into a minefield,” he said.

His organization does not oppose objective instruction of the Bible, but he suggested a better approach would be to incorporate religion across the curriculum — in history, literature, English and art history — when relevant.

Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties group, also supports objective religious discussions in public schools but foresees problems with Bible class instruction.

“There are so few public school teachers who have had a religious background,” he said. “The teachers who volunteer to teach these courses are going to be the teachers who are excited about the Bible and have a faith commitment.”

Without proper academic and First Amendment training, Haynes said, schools are vulnerable to lawsuits.

Teachers in Muscogee County will receive proper training, Pennock said. School boards will seek out highly qualified teachers with proper academic preparations in high school English or history, and will offer them an online course and other special instruction.

“We’re not looking for religious people to teach these courses,” she said. “It is not going to be taught from a spiritual standpoint.”