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A Bible course without the lawsuits?

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The new textbook "treats faith perspectives with respect, and ... informs and instructs, but does not promote religion," says Chuck Stetson, the Project's founder and chairman.

Others express concern: "I don't think the Constitution prohibits the use of this textbook, but I have real doubts about the wisdom of this approach," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "At this time in America, it's better to simply talk about religious influences when they come up during the study of literature, art, and history, and not take the text of one religious tradition and treat it with special deference."

Mr. Lynn also worries that individual teachers might go beyond the text itself and "spin it in ways that may well violate the Constitution."

As part of a pilot effort during textbook development, the Project provided a training program for 27 public high school teachers over an eight-month period. Five of the teachers received a classroom set of the draft text to test with students.

"Students love the material - it's beautiful," says Joan Spence, a language-arts teacher in Battle Ground, Wash. "It is formatted like other textbooks, and puts them in the English-class mindset. They don't have the temptation to wander off into a Sunday School frame of mind."

Ms. Spence taught a Bible literature course for two years before having access to the textbook, and says she appreciates its "wealth of connections to art, poetry, music - the artists who have created out of inspiration from the Bible."

More than 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court said (in School District of Abingdon Twp. v. Schemp) that it was appropriate to teach about the Bible as long as it "is presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." Still, some courses given in schools have veered into sectarian territory.

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