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A Bible course without the lawsuits?

Teaching about the Bible is critical - and contentious, teachers agree. A new textbook may provide a safe path through a political minefield.

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Like prayer in the schools and the Ten Commandments in courthouses, teaching about the Bible in public classrooms has long been contentious. Some people question whether it is legal. Many educators worry they might be faced with lawsuits.

And American students, it seems, end up the losers. Without academic knowledge of the Bible and its influence, many teachers say, pupils can't understand their own literary, artistic, and cultural heritage. In a survey last spring, 90 percent of leading English teachers said biblical knowledge was crucial to a good education. Yet a Gallup poll found that only 8 percent of public-school teens said their school offered an elective course on the Bible.

For school districts, the difficulty lies in agreeing on what will pass constitutional muster, and then actually having the materials to teach it appropriately.

Help may be on the way. The Bible Literacy Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in Fairfax, Va., has spent five years developing the first high school text on the Bible in 30 years. The project involved scholars and reviewers from all major Jewish and Christian traditions.

"The Bible and Its Influence," released last week in Washington, is designed to meet constitutional standards and to convey the Scriptures' broad influence on Western civilization. Covering Old and New Testaments, it presents the biblical narratives, characters, and themes as well as their cultural influences.

Students may gain a more nuanced understanding of Shakespeare, with his 1,300 biblical references; or grasp the import of the Exodus to the African-American experience and musical heritage; or learn how the Bible shaped Abraham Lincoln's vision. They may even recognize a biblical origin for their hometown - Corpus Christi, New Canaan, and Salem, for example.

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