Will Bible Instruction Play In Peoria Schools? (September 1997)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has protested a proposal by Peoria, Illinois, Mayor Bud Grieves to place a bible on the desk of every Peoria high school student.

On behalf of its Peoria members, many of whom have individually complained to the mayor, the Foundation sent a message to Grieves against bibles in public schools, in the form of two of its bumperstickers:

“The Bible: A Grim Fairy Tale” and “Love Thy First Amendment.”

Newly-elected Grieves had the “endorsement of the Christian Coalition,” according to the Peoria Journal Star, although that group is legally barred from endorsing candidates.

In a July 2 letter on city stationery sent to every school board member, Grieves urged “the inclusion of the Bible as an elective in the study of literature and history.”

He told the press: “I want the moral standards [taught] first; the [book’s] historical element is secondary.” Grieves claimed placing the bibles in schools would help recruit new businesses to Peoria by demonstrating how the city is rooted in “moral standards.”

The Peoria school district currently offers an honors class on the bible as literature. School Board president Jan Deissler told the Journal Star that the mayor “has the right to lend his mayoral weight to the issue,” alluding to a similar suggestion by President Ronald Reagan a decade ago.

In a letter to Grieves, the Foundation reminded him of “Illinois’ long legacy of support for the treasured principle of church and state separation,” with bible reading halted as early as 1910 in Illinois schools in People ex Rel. Ring v. Board of Education.

“An unfortunate experiment with religious instruction in the public schools in the 1940’s in Illinois was halted in 1948 by the U.S. Supreme Court, in McCollum v. Board of Education, a case brought by a mother in Champaign,” the Foundation letter added.

Quoting from that landmark case, the Foundation noted Justice Jackson’s warning that teachers could not stay detached about their own religions, with instruction becoming proselytizing, and the imparting of knowledge turning into evangelism. “These are precisely the flaws in your proposal.”

Grieves was also reminded that 18.5% of Americans are not religious (Time, Jan. 30, 1995) and these Americans have the right to a public education free from religion.

Grieves’ contention that his particular holy book is the only source for “family values,” workplace ethics or morality, merely shows his personal bias, the letter added.

“The assertion that workplace values and habits may be learned (only) from the bible is not reconcilable with some of its most famous teachings, such as ‘Take no thought for the morrow.’ ‘Lilies of the field’ won’t hack it in today’s international marketplace! Of course, even were the bible helpful in instilling workplace values, it would still be inappropriate and illegal to promote it through our public schools in the manner proposed.”

Grieves’ proposal comes directly from a religious group based in North Carolina, the “National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools,” which claims its curriculum is in school districts in 12 states.

A form letter about its curriculum from the group’s president, Elizabeth Ridenour, is signed “Sincerely in Christ,” and opens: “The Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, our educational system, and our entire history until the last twenty to thirty years.” The stated intention: “to study the Bible as a foundation document of society.”

Peoria school board members were also sent a letter by Jay Sekulow, counsel for Pat Robertson’s religious-right legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice.

Peoria’s daily newspaper, The Journal Star, editorialized against the proposal on August 6, 1997, saying it would be a “miracle and not an entirely welcome one” if Grieves can figure out how to teach the bible without emphasis on any religion.

“. . . if the answer [to social problems] were as simple as reading the Bible, then our churches would be palaces for the virtuous rather than workshops for sinners,” the editorial continued.

The newspaper also wondered how a school district that has already eliminated home economics and vocational training can afford to train and hire a staff to teach the bible, or alternatively “ethics,” as also proposed by the mayor and Councilman Ed Glover.

Grieves “treads on dangerous ground if he takes a lead role as mayor in representing a faction of Christians . . . on an issue which the School Board is elected to resolve. . . the teaching of religious principles is not a task for government.”

Letters may be sent to Mayor Lowell G. (“Bud”) Grieves, City Hall Building, 419 Fulton St., Peoria IL 61602, Fax (309) 494-8559. The School Board or Board President Jan Deissler can be reached c/o Peoria Public Schools, 3202 N. Wisconsin Ave., Peoria IL 61603, Fax (309) 672-6708. The Journal Star address is: 1 News Plaza, Peoria IL 61643, Fax (309) 686-3296. For a copy of the proposed bible curriculum, write: National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, PO Box 9743, Greensboro NC 27429.

Freedom From Religion Foundation