An ongoing controversy in Odessa, TX has been getting the attention of people across Texas and the rest of the country. It started off innocently enough: plans were made to adopt an elective course about the Bible for students in the local public schools (Ector County Independent School District). Three years later, people in favor of and against the curriculum have been making their views known, civil liberties groups and conservative Christian groups have gotten involved, and a lawsuit has been filed and settled. How did an elective course end up being so controversial?
The curriculum used for this course was produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. This curriculum is favored by many conservative, evangelical Christians. Critics say that the Protestant King James Bible is taught as truth; the interpretation of the text favors a sectarian theology that seems to ignore the beliefs of many Christians. The NCBC curriculum has been criticized by Dr. Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University because of concerns about poor research, factual errors, and plagiarism. Another curriculum offered by the Bible Literacy Project was offered as a possibility. Their textbook has been praised by religious leaders and journalists alike, and has been approved by scholars from various Christian and Jewish backgrounds. Teachers who testified on the organization’s website have stated that students have enjoyed the course very much.
The NCBC curriculum was adopted in December 2005, despite opposition from some concerned Odessa residents and an effort by the Texas Freedom Network, . Texas Freedom Network is an Austin-based civil liberties watchdog group. TFN sent copies of Dr. Chancey’s report to each of the board members before the curriculum was chosen. On May 16, 2007, a lawsuit against the school district was filed by the ACLU. Problems with the course cited in the suit included “yes” or “no” answers to questions concerning sectarian beliefs as well as viewpoints about American history that favor certain faiths over others. On March 2, 2008, the suit was settled, with the school district ceasing to use the curriculum after the end of this school year and adopting another, less-biased, curriculum.
One thing I’ve found personally saddening in this whole issue is how polarizing it’s been. For someone who hasn’t been following the story, it can be made to look like critics are anti-God and anti-Christianity. Some news stories and editorials have focused on the fact that the curriculum is elective, without mentioning the concerns about sectarian teachings. Many opponents of the NCBC are opposed to that curriculum, but not necessarily elective Bible courses in general. However, the way the controversy is reported by news sources and in blogs, you’d never know it!
I can only speak for myself, but I have no personal objection to an elective course that teaches about the Bible without teaching doctrines. A good course should probably include a history of the Bible with information on various translations, background on the culture of the time periods covered, and information on the literary styles used. Religious leaders representing various backgrounds should be able to check the curriculum for problems and provide feedback.
Some supporters of the Bible curriculum used by ECISD have implied that those without children or children who are in public school shouldn’t voice their objections. However, just because you’re not a parent, does that mean you shouldn’t care what kids are being taught? I think not. The world has already experienced enough problems because of sectarian religious differences, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make sure children have access to unbiased information on all religions.