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The uproar over El Salvador's July decree that the Bible must be read daily in public schools came largely from the nation's pastors.

On July 1, the Legislative Assembly passed Decreto 411, mandating that schools begin each day with seven minutes of Bible reading without commentary. The goal: to teach morality to students to prevent them from joining the violent gangs plaguing the Central American nation of 6 million. Weeks before, a street gang set fire to a city bus traveling through the outskirts of San Salvador, burning 14 civilians to death.

The law provoked a heated public debate among church leaders.

"Salvadoran society is totally polarized. No gray exists—all is white or black," said Susana Barrera, El Salvador correspondent for the ecumenical news agency ALC. The Evangelical Alliance of El Salvador and many Pentecostal churches largely supported the measure, while Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and other historical church bodies largely opposed it.

Opponents said their concern wasn't with the Bible or the power of its words, but with the law. Decreto 411 was passed without consulting church leaders first, and left undefined who would read the Bible, what verses would be read, and which translation would be used. This left room for fears of Catholics and Protestants spinning the chosen texts in their respective favor and concerns about "proselytism."

"Reading the Scriptures can never be bad," said Medardo Goméz, bishop of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church. "[Yet] we believe reading the Bible is not magic."

Juan Carlos Hasbún, president of the Evangelical Alliance of El Salvador, discounted such concerns. "The idea was to read one proverb and one psalm every day, that's it," he said. "Public ...

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