The Georgia state school board has approved teaching the Bible in high schools as an elective course.
Georgia's public schools walk a delicate line as they decide whether to offer the nation's first state-funded Bible classes -- measuring the difference between preaching and teaching with the likelihood of costly lawsuits looming for those that miss the mark.
The state school board approved curriculum in March for teaching the Bible in Georgia's high schools, but there hasn't been a rush of schools to start up the classes. Only a handful of the state's 180 school districts have agreed to offer the elective classes so far.
In one of the state's largest districts, Muscogee county, the school board has decided to offer Old and New Testament classes in the Fall. The deputy school superintendent for Muscogee County, Robin Pennock, says: "It has been a very thoughtful, healthy process. Most people do realize that this is an area that many people can feel very passionate about."
"It's important to understand religion; it's something we've gotten too far away from," said Jan Pease, whose 15-year-old daughter attends Northside High School in Columbus.
The Bible is already being taught in comparative religion and other public school classes in many states, however, funding for those classes comes from the local school district, not from the state government.
The new Georgia law that allows the state to fund Bible classes received overwhelming approval from both sides of the house, Democrat and Republican. The law says that the classes must be taught "in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students".
Other states, including Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, are considering enacting similar laws but none of them have given their final approval. The Texas proposal would make it mandatory that all high school students take a Bible class.
Supporters say fully understanding history, literature and political science -- from the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. to the war in Iraq -- requires knowledge of the Bible.
Ms Pennock, who was a Western civilization teacher before joining the board, says: "I don't think you can understand Shakespeare, that you can understand a great deal of literary allusions or that you can understand a great deal of Western civilization without understanding the role of the Bible."
Muscogee county is planning to give teachers an online course and other special instructions to help guide them in their course preparations.
The Rev. Charles Hasty, of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, is hoping that students who are exposed to the Bible's teachings might look for a more spiritual approach in their lives. "It's going to challenge the faith of some students and it may foster the faith of others."
However, critics are worried that religious classes might turn into an endorsement of Christianity. "Georgia has set teachers up for failure," said Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, a Washington D.C.-based civil liberties group. "The chances of it being unconstitutional are pretty big and the pitfalls are huge."
Haynes' group say they support religious discussions and study of the Bible in public schools, but they believe that the law in Georgia does not give teachers enough guidance about the strict differences between academic study and spiritual teaching.
Haynes said the lack of direction in state law makes schools vulnerable to lawsuits if students feel religion is being endorsed. "People are going to sue," he said. "That's why the Legislature should have been more responsible about putting school boards in situations where they might have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, split their communities and end up in a courtroom."
The First Amendment Center and Georgia's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union are planning on monitoring how these new classes are being taught.
It is believed that some of Georgia's school districts are not offering the Bible classes this year because they are concerned about violating the laws regarding the separation of church and state. Joe Buck is the Chairman of the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education. He says: "We have to be very careful with that." His school system has made no move yet to consider the classes.
Pease, who is a Christian, says that she would support the school teaching comparative religion classes that studied the holy books of other major faiths like Islam's Quran. "I don't think any particular religion needs to be pushed on anyone. But I do think it's important to teach about them."