By Joshua Benton
DUNCANVILLE — At first glance, it looks like any current events class, from wall maps of the world’s hot spots to the newspaper the teacher is reading out loud. Today’s topic: the latest clash in the Middle East, the battle between Israelis and Palestinians over control of the Gaza Strip.
But when teacher Wendell McHargue asks students to open their textbook – “OK, everybody open up your Bibles” – it becomes clear something here is different.
Mr. McHargue, a retired pastor and former Bible college professor, teaches Bible studies at Duncanville High School. Although the Texas Education Agency doesn’t keep track, one expert estimates as many as 200 Texas schools offer such a class.
At a time when the nexus of religion and public education is contested ground, the classes are at the center of a growing debate.
Experts say Bible classes, allowed under constitutional guidelines set out by the Supreme Court, are becoming increasingly common. But their detractors – and even some supporters – worry that not all instructors are as good as Mr. McHargue at avoiding illegal territory.
“Unfortunately, many school districts jump into this without proper preparation,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for religious freedom at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., who estimates that a majority of such classes nationwide do not pass constitutional muster. “It’s a growing point of tension, unfortunately.”
On the extremes, predictable lines have been drawn: religious stalwarts who want the Bible taught as literal religious doctrine opposite those who think that any mention of religion breaches the separation of church and state. Stuck in the middle are people like Mr. McHargue, who strive for a way to provide students a valuable educational element while walking the line required by the U.S. Constitution.
“The major goal is giving the children the knowledge,” he said. “Theological perspectives belong in the seminary.”
Courts have held repeatedly that the First Amendment limits a school’s ability to offer religious instruction. But under current court doctrine, Bible study classes are permitted if they treat the Bible as a historical or literary document and don’t examine it from the perspective of a single religion.
In Duncanville, Mr. McHargue said he was surprised at the lack of Bible knowledge among some students.
“There are a number of children who are not knowledgeable about the Bible at all,” he said. “We may take it for granted that they know who Job is, or they know who Elijah is. But a lot of them don’t.”
During one recent class, Mr. McHargue showed video from a recent trip he took to Israel. “I want you to see how quiet and tranquil things were in Jerusalem,” he said, contrasting the silence in the video with the images of rock-throwing on the front page of that day’s newspaper. Much of the day’s class focuses on the background that led to the current Palestinian conflict. But he also makes reference to the scriptural passages that both sides use to justify their causes.
Throughout the class, he is careful not to take a religious stance, referring to Bethlehem as “the alleged place of Christ’s birth” and bringing out a copy of the Koran to discuss Islam.
While he comes from a religious background – he was also a Baptist missionary pastor for a time – Mr. McHargue said it has not been difficult to tow the constitutional line.
“I made it clear at the start of class that this is not a theology class and that there were going to be no theological debates taking place, or even theological discussion,” he said.
His students seem to understand. “My teacher’s pretty good at not trying to impose any sort of religious thing on you,” said junior Michelle Provencher. “He just gives the facts.”
At least one other area district, Mesquite ISD, also offers a Bible studies class. The district allows local churches to offer their own Bible studies classes, taught on church grounds by church pastors using a church-generated curriculum. Students receive academic credit for taking the course.
This year, only one group, Life Community Church, is offering such a class. Youth Pastor Alan Baker runs the class of six students, all members of the church, who meet one night a week.
Mr. Baker said he started the class last year when a student needed one credit to graduate early. “It was nice to be able to help him out,” he said.
Mr. Baker said he has not received any complaints about his for-credit religious class, adding, “I don’t know that many people know about it.”
He said he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for Mesquite ISD to be offering academic credit for the class. “If they decided to end it, I would understand. I think they would have reasonable grounds. I have no expectations for the public schools to support Christianity whatsoever. But for now, it’s an opportunity I have to offer my kids.”
According to Glenda Heil, Mesquite ISD’s administrative officer for curriculum, the district provides relatively little oversight of the off-campus Bible classes. Pastors must submit an outline of what they plan to teach at the start of each semester to ensure it is not sectarian, and district officials must see the final exams after students take them. Otherwise, she said, pastors are essentially on their own.
If a non-Christian church applied to sponsor such a class, the district would evaluate it “on a case-by-case basis,” Ms. Heil said. She said current district rules might not allow such a class because instructors are required to cover the Old and New Testaments.
That distinction fires up groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s clearly unconstitutional,” said William Clark Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. “All the case law says that no state agency can select one religion over another or seemingly endorse one religion over another. That’s a patent violation.”
Dr. Haynes has been speaking out about the importance of Bible education for more than a decade. “I think it’s hard to dispute that no other book has played a greater role in shaping our civilization than the Bible,” he said.
But Dr. Haynes is also very conscious of constitutional limits. He has spent years attempting to find a middle ground that religious groups and constitutional scholars could agree on.
Guide for schools
Last year, his group and the National Bible Association co-published a guide for schools that want to know how they can teach about religion. The guide advocates a neutral tone, respect for various Christian and non-Christian traditions, and allowing student religious expression.
An array of religious and nonreligious organizations endorsed the guide, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, the Council on Islamic Education and the People for the American Way Foundation. A set of lesson plans deemed constitutionally appropriate is planned for a spring release, said Thomas May, president of the National Bible Association.
“Teachers don’t have a model for teaching about the Bible,” Dr. Haynes said. “They have a model for teaching the Bible. They try to be objective, but they haven’t been trained.” Outside a few seminars, opportunities for teacher training are rare.
Dr. Haynes said teachers often stray by presenting the Bible as literal history. In Mesquite, for example, Mr. Baker said his class recently learned about “world migration patterns” outlined in Genesis. He said students were taught that Europeans, Africans and Semitic peoples all descended from the three sons of Noah after the flood, and that each group had its own racial characteristics, such as philosophical thought for Europeans and skill at hunting and conquering for Africans.
Dr. Haynes said the Mesquite program wouldn’t pass muster. “That’s not a close call,” he said. “That violates all the principles.Even if the course were academically approved, the fact that it’s held in a church, outside the regular school program, it seems to me, would still make it unconstitutional.”
Mr. McHargue in Duncanville said he covered the same passage in Genesis in just a few minutes. “We simply made reference to it, and that was that – no discussion, no controversy. I didn’t think that was probably appropriate to get too far into.”
Some prominent religious leaders think Dr. Haynes is wasting his time, that any attempts to please the twin gods of the Constitution and religious groups are doomed to fail. “What we’re talking about is trying to teach the Bible merely as literature or merely as history,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “That’s not being neutral to people of faith.”
Despite such concerns, Dr. Haynes remains doggedly optimistic that a compromise is possible.
“I think we’ve crossed the biggest hurdle,” he said. “We can’t give up on a good education because it’s difficult and emotional. Would we say, ‘It’s hard to teach math, so let’s get rid of it?’ It’s just a matter of doing it right.”