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Georgia to offer government-sanctioned Bible classes

Also will permit Commandments at courthouse

ATLANTA -- Georgia became what is believed to be the first state to offer government-sanctioned elective classes on the Bible, with Governor Sonny Perdue signing a bill into law yesterday.

The governor also signed a bill permitting the display of the Ten Commandments at courthouses, an issue that has raised thorny constitutional questions.

Critics say the measures blur the line between church and state. National civil rights groups said they want to see how the laws are implemented before deciding whether to challenge them in court.

The Bible is already incorporated into classes in Georgia and other states, and some local school districts have passed measures permitting classes devoted solely to the Bible. But education analysts say the law in Georgia is the first time a state government has endorsed such courses.

The new law allows elective classes on the Bible to be taught to high school students. Local school systems will decide whether to teach the courses.

The state Education Department has until February to craft curriculums.

The law requires that the courses be taught ''in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."

The state's new Ten Commandments law was prompted by controversy over the posting of the commandments at the Barrow County Courthouse. A federal judge ordered the display removed in July.

Backers of the law made clear they were trying to craft a statute that would survive any constitutional challenges.

In a split decision last June, the US Supreme Court declared that exhibits of the Ten Commandments were constitutional if their main purpose was to honor the nation's legal, rather than religious, traditions, and if they didn't promote one religious sect over another.

Both bills passed the state Legislature by comfortable margins.

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