In the LA Times (reg. req.), computer science professor and conservative commentator David Gelernter argues that the Bible should be taught in public schools (Why the Bible Belongs in America's Public Schools). He makes the standard arguments that it is important to know the Bible in order to understand American history and literature. He's absolutely right. He's also right that it would be perfectly constitutional to teach the Bible in public schools as literature. In fact, I agree that we should teach the Bible as literature in the public schools. Indeed, I've recently been studying the Bible as literature myself.
The problem is, however, that I think it unlikely that the "Bible as literature" would long remain that way. It is a struggle already to keep certain states from bringing in supernatural/mystical explanations for ecological diversity; how hard would it be to police the inevitable corruption of "Bible as literature" courses?
Teaching the Bible as literature is secular. However, Gelernter himself betrays that what he really wants is religious teaching in schools, not secular teaching.
And let's not be coy about the underlying cultural context. Bible-reading used to be routine in public schools. [Michael] Novak again: "Beginning about 1948, one Supreme Court case after another turned the judiciary (and the law schools) into aggressive enemies of religion in public life." The Bible began to seem tainted no matter how you planned to teach it.
Well, Bible-reading used to be routine, but it certainly wasn't secular. It was done in a religious context. The Supreme Court wasn't banning "Bible as literature" courses, but Bible as faintly camouflaged religious indoctrination. To characterize the courts as "enemies of religion" makes sense only if you intend to teach the Bible as religious document, not as secular literature.
Gelernter finishes his op-ed with this:
The great thundering secularist tide that swept the Bible out of public school education is about to turn. Tides always do. Odessa is a portent.
Once again, if you're teaching the Bible as literature, what you are doing is secular. If the Bible is being taught in a secular manner, how is it that the secularist tide will be turning? Wouldn't the secularist tide be rising higher? If not, it would be because religious teaching was being brought into the school.
As for citing Odessa, Texas as a sign of the shifting tide, what a surprise that such a conservative and religious community would make such a choice. The effort in Odessa was spearheaded by the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools, which states on the front page of their website that:
The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children.
And how, exactly, is a simple literature course supposed to do all that?