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A Bible course without the lawsuits?

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"Some of the courses I've encountered around the country over 20 years would not pass muster in a court of law," says Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "They're closer to Sunday School than legitimate academic courses."

He sees the new textbook as important "because it's constitutional and educationally sound, and may provide a safe harbor for public schools."

Five years ago, the First Amendment Center - a nonpartisan group that works with schools on religious liberty issues - brought educational and religious groups together to produce a guide, "The Bible and Public Schools." The guide provides districts with information and clear standards to help them keep the teaching academic and not devotional. Districts were left to identify their own books or materials.

"I don't think many people feel well prepared to teach a class of this sort," Ms. Spence says, "or have time to research important background information, so this will make more people feel able to take on the challenge."

At the same time, many US English teachers express concern that students' deficient biblical knowledge is hampering their education. Marie Wachlin, a professor at Concordia University in Portland, Ore., conducted the national study earlier this year of high school English teachers in which they said biblical knowledge was essential for a good education. Ninety-eight percent also said biblical literacy is a distinct educational advantage.

Biblical allusions permeate Western literature. In a book that prepares students to take the Advanced Placement Exam, 60 percent of the allusions listed are from the Bible. Yet polls in recent years have shown that both students and adult Americans in general have very limited biblical knowledge.

According to many teachers in the national study, if their schools didn't offer courses, "it wasn't from lack of importance or lack of community support, but due to political pressures," Dr. Wachlin says.

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