Can a Book End Debate Over Religion in Schools?

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Into the contentious debate about the role of religion in public schools comes a nice bit of middle-of-the road common sense: Teach, but don't preach. "The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide," unveiled Thursday by a coalition of 20 normally at-odds groups (such as People for the American Way and the National Bible Association), is a how-to book for schools who want to teach about the Bible without teaching the Bible. TIME senior religion writer David Van Biema calls the move "a terrific thing," saying that it could lead to a greatly increased understanding of one of Western civilization's most important cultural and historic documents.

The big question is whether schools will agree. Religion is an issue many school districts don't want any part of, since feelings run so hot on the issue and courts have traditionally given a strict interpretation of the Constitution's separation of church and state in the classroom. But the new booklet draws its inspiration from the most famous ruling on the subject: a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that, while it banned school prayer, did say that the Bible could be included in school curricula if taught objectively. "After the 1962 ruling a lot of administrators, just to be on the safe side, banned almost any mention of religion from their schools," says Van Biema. "But to some extent the evangelicals who've been active on the subject of religion in schools have a point, that administrators have been overreactive in keeping any mention of religion out of the classroom." The willingness of some of the fiercest opponents and proponents of religion in schools to sign on to this compromise could ease tensions among school districts over letting the Bible into the classroom. Which means the Cliff's Notes on Genesis can't be far behind.