Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Once upon a time in America, most public school children – including several future presidents – studied, discussed and even learned to read from the Bible.
A pair of landmark Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, however, put the fear of litigation into school principals, and a new era in education began, where advocates for the “separation of church and state” used the courts to push the Bible out of classrooms.
This foundational divide in U.S. history was only highlighted by Barack Obama’s controversial remark in 2006, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation.”
One county in Tennessee, however, has found a way to keep biblical instruction in its public schools – with the blessing of a court decision, the support of the community and in keeping with a tradition that began in 1922.
On Sept. 16, a group of 11 Hamilton County, Tenn., churches – including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Assemblies of God and more – will meet for the “Hixson Gathering,” a prayer service and fund-raiser for a unique program of elective, for-credit, Bible history classes taught at 20 schools in the county, including the Hixson Middle and High Schools.
With the help of an organization called Bible in the Schools, area residents, like those at the Hixson Gathering, are able to reimburse the Hamilton County Department of Education for certified Bible teachers – hired at no cost to the taxpayers – while dodging the legal tactics of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
“The federal courts have affirmed that teaching the Bible in our public schools is a constitutionally protected freedom,” Bible in the Schools asserts. “[And] with all the concern over character, no program is better positioned to touch more students quantitatively or qualitatively.”
“I would love to say ‘thank you’ to the Hixson community for helping us to offer such a wonderful program in our schools,” Hixson Middle School Principal LeAngela Rogers told Tennessee’s Chattanoogan. “The teen years are a time of unprecedented growth socially, physically, emotionally and morally. Bible history classes contribute not only to their academic achievement, but also to character education, as students develop into their own person.”
Ron Phillips, pastor of Abba’s House, one of the churches participating in the joint effort, told the newspaper, “President Andrew Jackson said the Bible ‘is the rock on which our Republic rests.’ No one is truly educated without a knowledge of Scripture.”
The program, which Bible in the Schools told WND it hopes can serve as a model for communities all across the U.S., began in 1922, when local resident Dr. J. Park McCallie first proposed a unique plan in which private citizens in the community would pay for teachers – who would, in turn, be subject to the board of education in scholarship and discipline – to instruct students in the history and language of the Bible. Doctrinal questions, however, would be directed back to the students’ pastors or priests.
The program was accepted and practiced until a court decision in 1979 temporarily stopped it.
On appeal, however, a U.S. District Court decision laid down guidelines for how the program could be reinstated with the court’s blessing and without violating the constitutional concerns that prompted the earlier decision.
McCallie’s idea, somewhat modified, took off again. This year, 20 middle and high schools across Hamilton County will offer Bible history electives to 14,692 students as part of the program.
Bible in the Schools reports that where the study of the Bible is offered in Hamilton County today, nearly 70 percent of all students will elect to take one or more Bible courses before graduating.
“We want our program to be a model for how it can be done,” explained Diane Cropp, development director for Bible in the Schools. “We set up our program, not that we are able to help others actually implement it right now, but what we have done is available for others to see and copy, and we would love to see that happen.”
Cropp told WND the organization’s already extensive website is being built up to clearly illustrate how local churches and citizens have made it work in Hamilton County. She said the organization is also hoping to make the curriculum it is helping to draft available online “so that someone else doesn’t have to start from scratch.”
According to the Bible in the Schools website, several unique factors enable its plan for Bible courses to be offered and taught constitutionally and in accordance with the U.S. District Court’s decision:
Teachers must be employed and supervised by the county Department of Education.
Teachers must be certified and have a minimum of 12 semester hours of Bible courses as part of their college education.
The schools must be reimbursed in full for the teachers’ salaries and benefits by private citizens; there is no cost to the taxpayer.
Bible courses are elective, offered to middle and senior high students only, and credit is given for their study.
No religious proselytizing, sectarianism nor denominationalism is permitted in class. Students with doctrinal questions are encouraged to seek out a pastor or rabbi
The curriculum is court approved.
And even through Hamilton County has had to blaze the trail in developing a unique plan for courses, teacher certification, private funding and so forth, Bible in the Schools asserts it’s critical to quality education.
“So much of the art, music, history, law, culture and moral standards of Western civilization [is] based on the Bible, that to be culturally literate, a truly educated American requires biblical knowledge,” the organization asserts. “When the schools of a nation fail adequately to transmit the literate national language and culture, the unity and effectiveness of the nation will necessarily decline.”
Other efforts to teach the Bible in public school
As Chuck Norris pointed out in a previous WND column, hundreds of school districts and communities across the nation have been looking for a plan like Hamilton County’s to offer classes on biblical history and literacy to public school students.
Some have petitioned local governments; others have sought reform through state legislatures or curriculum boards.
As Norris also pointed out, however, there are also several local and national organizations pushing back, seeking further restrictions on teaching Bible courses in schools.
“Anyone who has studied early American history knows that the Bible has always been embedded throughout our culture, from classrooms to congressional halls,” he continued. “So, what’s stopping you from being the instrument for implementing biblical education in your local school?”