I recently witnessed an extraordinary event at Sale Creek Middle/High School as the community met at the common-use gymnasium to consider a Bible history elective for students. Organizers were optimistic 300 people might show up. Around 700 responded, clearly showing the determination of our communities to provide well-rounded public education.
Bible history is a related arts elective offered by the Hamilton County Department of Education. Courses are fully funded by private donations to the Bible in the Schools program. The Chattanooga nonprofit, now in its 95th year, reimburses the school district about $1 million annually for comprehensive costs covering this elective in 19 schools. No tax dollars are used.
Bible in the Schools began in 1922 with volunteers teaching Bible electives in all public schools. In the late '70s, the program was targeted by progressives determined to eliminate any vestige of traditional religion from public education. The controversy resulted in a federal court decision.
Chief Judge Frank W. Wilson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee in Chattanooga ruled the program could continue, but with mandated restrictions. First, teachers should be certified and hired by principals using county hiring criteria.
Second, Bible history teachers would receive the same salaries and benefits as all other teachers. Third, electives would be limited to middle and high school students. Fourth, the Bible would be the textbook. The curriculum focus would be on the Bible as literature. Students would gain an understanding of countless works of literature, art and music from biblical content.
In his opinion written Sept. 5, 1980, Judge Wilson stated, "For a Bible study course offered in public schools to be Constitutionally permissible under the First Amendment Establishment Clause, the following tests must be met: (a) the nature, intent and purpose of the course must be secular; (b) the primary effect of the course must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and (c) the course must be offered in a manner that avoids excessive entanglement between government and religion." Administrators of the program carefully adhere to these guidelines.
When the opportunity arose for a Bible history elective in Sale Creek, eight local pastors of various denominations along with community leaders worked to get the word out.
After contributions were counted, Bible in the Schools board chairman Bob Marshall choked back emotion as he announced the community's gift — $81,000 over three years. Those funds will allow Sale Creek to begin a Bible history program next school year. A generous anonymous donor substantially extended the collective contribution.
The people I witnessed at the Sale Creek community meeting were not religious ideologues, insisting that every child attending Sale Creek schools be indoctrinated in the Christian faith. They simply wanted their children to be exposed to the Bible and to have a broad academic understanding of the most widely read and influential book in the history of the world. Parents know their children then must decide for themselves what is true. After all, isn't the search for truth the root of all education?
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle answered that question 2,500 years ago. He stated, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
Some Sale Creek students may accept the Bible and embrace its principles as a moral compass in their life's journey. Others may partially accept it. Others will totally reject it. Either way, the course will prove an invaluable part of their education.
If you wish to contribute or learn more about the Bible in the Schools program, visit www.bibleintheschools.com.
Roger Smith, a local author, is a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press.