Board approves 2nd Bible textbook

Published 8:33 pm Thursday, November 13, 2008

MONTGOMERY – The State Board of Education is giving Alabama’s public schools a second choice of books for teaching about the Bible after the first selection drew criticism.

The board voted unanimously Thursday to approve “The Bible in History and Literature,” which was developed by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and published by ABLU.

The board’s vote means schools can use state funds to buy the book for their elective course about the Bible’s influence on history and literature.

The school board’s vote came a year after the board made Alabama the first state to approve the use of “The Bible and Its Influence,” published by the Bible Literacy Project.

That vote followed a textbook battle in the Legislature, where Republicans blocked a move by some Democratic House leaders to mandate the use of “The Bible and Its Influence” in Alabama’s public schools.

“Conservative people had a serious problem with the first one,” school board member Ella Bell said after the vote Thursday.

Bell, D-Montgomery, downplayed any controversy. She compared the two books to some people preferring the King James version of the Bible, while others like the “Good News for Modern Man” version or the New International Version.

The new book uses the King James version as the reference point because it is the most commonly available, said Eric Johnston, attorney for the book’s publisher, ABLU.

At a public hearing in September, the American Civil Liberties Union objected to the use of the book, saying it could be used to violate students’ religious liberties.

“The Bible and Its Influence” also has critics. When Republicans blocked it in the Legislature, they complained that it had too much editorial comment. They also objected to some questions in the book, such as “Did Adam and Eve receive a bad deal?”

School board member Stephanie Bell, R-Montgomery, said she was concerned about some errors in the book, including a reference to Jesus being born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.

The Bible Literacy Project says its book has been falsely portrayed as liberal and that some content cited by critics has long been removed.

The book has received praise from the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, and Catholic Biblical Association. It is used in 277 schools in 40 states, said Sarah Jenislawski, the project’s executive director.

When a book does not have state board approval, school systems must use their own funds to buy the book. Johnston said a few school systems were already using “The Bible in History and Literature” before its approval Thursday.

Nationwide, it has been approved for 471 school districts in 38 states.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said the school board approved “The Bible and Its Influence” last year because it was the only Bible textbook submitted to the state’s textbook selection committee then. When the committee sought more submissions this year, “The Bible in History and Literature” was the only new one submitted.

He said he did not expect legal problems with either book because teachers are not supposed to use the books to try to convert students to any specific belief.

If there is a suit, the publisher has offered to defend the state for free, Johnston said in a letter to state education officials.

Alabama’s Bible course is not a widely popular elective in high school. Only three of Alabama’s 131 school systems were offering the course in 2006. State education officials said the number of school systems offering it has grown since the state adopted an approved textbook, but they were unsure how many. They said many school systems do not offer the elective.