LOS ANGELES A drive is under way in California to have the state government provide a Bible to every public elementary school student in the state and suggest that schools use the books as texts for the study of literature.
The ballot initiative, sponsored by an Orange County lawyer, could meet constitutional standards that allow use of the Bible for instruction as long as it is part of a curriculum in subjects such as literature, history and archeology.
Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, one in 1963 and the other in 1980, established precedent allowing such instruction as long as there are no denominational aspects to the curriculum.
Sponsor Matt McLaughlin, 34, said he intentionally excluded any specified curriculum from his initiative, leaving decisions on how to use the Bibles to school officials.
"It is such an important part of our culture," McLaughlin said of the Bible.
But the lack of a proposal on how the books would be used could raise constitutional problems, experts said.
"I guess the secretary of state thinks that if they go through the initiative process they are laundering it of constitutional problems," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law in New York. "It does not."
California law dictates that the secretary of state must approve a proposed ballot initiative before it can be circulated to gather the required number of signatures from registered voters.
Hamilton noted that in its two rulings the Supreme Court held that the Constitution permits the use of the Bible for instruction within a defined discipline.
"But this is not being done in that context," she said. "I don't think there is much to separate this from Judge Roy Moore's granite block with the 10 Commandments," Hamilton said, referring to the Alabama chief justice's decision to place a monument bearing the commandments in the state's judicial building. The monument was removed last year.
HOW MEASURE COULD SUCCEED
Where constitutionally acceptable curricula using the Bible exist in other states, they take on very specific forms.
Stephen Haynes, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, has followed the development of such a course in Shelby County, Tenn.
"It teaches the Bible as an integral part of American history," he said.
The course, called Hebrew History, deals only with the Torah. It was approved by the local school board without significant opposition, Haynes said, noting that there has been no effort to challenge the instruction on legal grounds.
He said the approach appeared to be academically well-balanced and taught by competent instructors.
Other districts have purchased a constitutionally acceptable course from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools of Greensboro, N.C. The curriculum was drawn up eight years ago and is used in 257 school districts in 35 states, according to Elizabeth Ridenour, the council's president.
"We are very careful that the teachers do not give any endorsements," Ridenour said. "Students are to draw their own conclusions."
The council's course, used in middle and high schools, is titled, "The Bible in History and Literature." It has 17 units and is taught in a single academic year the Torah in the first semester and the Christian bible in the second.
The curriculum includes lessons on Noah and the flood, the biblical city of Ur and the Exodus, and the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. It also has a lesson on the Passover that includes recipes for a Seder, a feast commemorating the Exodus.
"The course talks about history and literature and even archeology," Ridenour said. "It talks about how the Bible influences art, music, the law, government and education."
In one lesson, students are required to draw a map of Abraham's biblical journeys and then add pictorial representations of actions Abraham took along the way.
COMING CHRISTIAN V. CHRISTIAN BATTLE?
The proposed ballot measure in California specifies that the Authorized King James Version be used. That version was first published in 1611 after the Church of England was established after the Reformation and the break with the Roman Catholic Church. Some suggest the choice could be problematic.
"One could probably complain about the use of the KJV of the Bible since that was plainly a politically motivated text designed to marginalize Catholics and Puritans," said Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. "But given the literary focus of the instruction, the KJV makes sense."
But what will be crucial to McLaughlin's effort is getting more than 1 million signatures of registered voters on petitions supporting his initiative for the November ballot. The secretary of state's office requires that 598,105 valid signatures be gathered by May 24, and in the past only about half of the signatures gathered for initiatives have been determined to be valid.
In previous initiative drives, large organizations or wealthy individuals have covered the cost of collecting the signatures, typically about $1 apiece.
McLaughlin said he is working through churches and church groups to get the word out and organize signature drives. He portrays his effort as a grass-roots affair without any support from national Christian organizations that might find his Bible campaign attractive.
He said he is using "back-channel" methods to try to attract the attention of national Christian organizations and would welcome their help, but that for the moment he is pretty much on his own.