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Ga. board near to approving Bible classes for public schools

ATLANTA — A pair of Bible classes are set to appear in Georgia’s public school classrooms next year, with supporters calling them a chance to teach students an important historical text and critics fearing they could be used as a jumping-off point for pushing religious beliefs.
    Literature and History of the Old Testament Era and Literature and History of the New Testament Era were on a list of classes the Georgia Board of Education voted to add to the state’s curriculum on Thursday.
    The vote sets in motion a 30-day period, after which the board is expected to give the classes their final approval.
    Approved by the Legislature last year, the classes will not be required and it will be up to the state’s 180 school systems to decide whether to offer them.
    ‘‘The Legislation required us to add those two classes to the list of state-funded electives and that’s what we did,’’ said school board spokesman Dana Tofig. ‘‘Now, school systems can decide whether they want to add these classes or not.’’
    The Bible already is incorporated into some classes in Georgia and other states. But education analysts say last year’s legislation made Georgia the first state government to take an explicit stance endorsing, and funding, Bible teaching.
    Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, sponsored the plan.
    He said the Bible plays a major role in U.S. and world history and is important in understanding many classic literary works.
    ‘‘It’s not just ’The Good Book,’ ‘‘ said Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, the plan’s sponsor. ‘‘It’s a good book.’’
    Williams said the bill approved in the Legislature was narrowly tailored to make it clear the courses would not stray into religious teaching.
    The bill calls for the courses to be taught ‘‘in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students.’’
    ‘‘The training is there to make sure the teachers don’t cross the line,’’ Williams said.
    But critics say that while the language creating the classes may pass constitutional muster, that could change in the classroom if instructors stray.
    Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel with the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the curricula approved Thursday by the school board — like the legislation itself — is vague.
    ‘‘They didn’t put in any outlines describing what they can and can’t do constitutionally,’’ she said. ‘‘The same traps are there for teachers who decide to teach the class.’’
    Garrett said that although the state law demands the classes be non-devotional, teachers in some districts may either seek to include their own beliefs or be pushed by students into conversations that include religious proselytizing.
    ‘‘In the state law, they do have some of the magic words,’’ she said. ‘‘But stating the magic words doesn’t really always play out when you get in the classroom.’’
    During last year’s pre-election legislative session, Democrats surprised majority Republicans by introducing a plan to teach the Bible in public schools.
    Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature, quickly responded with their own version of the plan which passed and was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue.
    The Bible itself will be the main text for the courses under the plan.
    The school board then appointed a Bible curriculum committee to craft the outlines for the courses. That group’s recommendations stuck closely to language in the original legislation and left most decisions up to local school boards — including teacher qualifications, lesson plans and classroom materials.
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    On the Net, Georgia Department of Education, http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/

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