Supporters appear unsure whether class is supposed to be religious

July 30, 2013

On Thursday, the Cape Henlopen School District Board of Education once again addressed the possibility of bringing a Bible Literacy Project class to the high school.

During the first part of the discussion, board members Sandi Minard and Jennifer Burton built a thoughtful case about why the Bible Literacy class should be added as an elective.

The purpose of the class, they said, had been misunderstood. It would explore the Bible’s influence on art and literature. It would not use the Bible as a textbook. It would not be a religious class. It would not be “devotional.”

Then it was Board President Spencer Brittingham’s turn to speak. He pretty much destroyed everything Minard and Burton had said.

In a long, rambling and passionate address, Brittingham made it clear he intended the Bible Literacy to be a religious class, to provide students with moral guidance.

Brittingham drew upon his experience working in prisons, where many of the inmates are between the ages of 18 and 30. These young people, he said, were unfamiliar with the Bible because it had been taken out of schools. They were unfamiliar with biblical principles such as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The result: “We reap what we sow.” We must do what we can to stem the tide, he said.

The discussion had the unintended effect of demonstrating why it would be difficult to keep the class from crossing constitutional lines concerning separation of church and state. Supporters of the class insisted it wouldn’t be a problem to teach a non-religious, non-devotional class about the Bible.

It’s hard to make that case when the school board president himself appears to think the class would provide students with religious instruction.

But while most speakers, both for and against, spoke about the religious issue, the strongest statement came from Dr. James Wilson, Cape Henlopen superintendent from 1981-92.

He was concerned about the process, about how the board had introduced the idea of a specific class - after hearing about it from a vendor at an educational conference - and were prepared to vote it into the high school curriculum.

It was, he said, “unheard of in the history of the school district.” (Early in the discussion, the current superintendent, Robert Fulton, had reiterated the school district staff’s strong recommendation against implementing the class, citing the problem of not crossing constitutional lines and the potential difficulties faced by the teacher.)

Wilson’s remarks highlighted, for me, another comment made by Minard, shortly before the vote. (It was a 3-3 tie, meaning it was rejected.)

We talk a lot about tolerance, Minard said. But, to her, that means, “I’m supposed to be tolerant.”

She’s supposed to be tolerant, for example, about courses that teach evolution. She seemed to be making the point that if we teach evolution, then we should also be able to teach the Bible.

I don’t understand the connection, and if board members were to start saying, in effect, “Your side gets to teach a course I don’t agree with, so we get to teach a course you don’t agree with,” then we’re headed for an educational mess, which I think is the point Wilson was making.

We teach evolution - which is a standard part of any biology course - not as part of some imaginary “culture war” tit-for-tat, but because we’re trying to provide our students with the best possible education, which has to include the latest in scientific thought.

Evolution helps explain everything from why there are more than 3,500 species of mosquitoes to the existence of the human appendix.

Interestingly enough, it came out at the meeting that while the high school biology classes include evolution, teachers make a point of saying that students don’t have to believe it.

Imagine a geography class teaching students the Earth is round, but telling them: You don’t have to believe that.

Imagine a geology or astronomy class teaching students the Earth is 4 billion years old, but telling them: You don’t have to believe that.

(The debate about the age of the Earth, which according to the Bible is about 6,000 years old, raged during the 19th century and closely paralleled later debates about evolution. Today, the vast majority of people accept the Earth is older than 6,000 years.

As work continues on mapping the human genome and other advances, more will be accepting of evolution.)

The fact that we do this with evolution shows how tolerant we are, how willing we are to bend over backward to accommodate the religious beliefs of others, even to the detriment of our children’s education.

Which, of course, should be focus of the Cape Henlopen board of education.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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