Students At An Ariz. Public Charter School Are Being Taught Religious Belief In Government Class, So Americans United Filed Suit

“All things were created by God, therefore upon Him all mankind are equally dependent, and to Him they are equally responsible.”

That sentence appears in a required textbook used in the American Government class at Heritage Academy, a public charter school for seventh through twelfth graders with three campusus near Phoenix, Ariz.  

The sentence is one of twenty-eight “Principles of Liberty” that all students must memorize, recite aloud for the class, and repeat in written homework. Other Principles include:

* “The only reliable basis for sound government and just human relations is Natural Law” (that is, God’s law).

* “Without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained.”

* “To protect human rights, God has revealed a code of divine law” (the Old Testament).

That textbook and the American Government teacher (who is also the school’s principal and founder) instruct the students that they are duty-bound to obey these 28 Principles and to work to make sure that the principles govern our political processes so that the United States can be restored to its former glory. 

This American Government class is mandatory for all Heritage Academy students, and the religious instruction provided in the class is not limited to the principles. Students are also taught that they must obey the Ten Commandments in order to be happy, that God destroyed a French fleet that threatened the American colonies during the 18th century and that testimony in legal proceedings is worthless if given by a witness who refuses to swear an oath to God.

Heritage Academy’s take on American government might be rather surprising even for a private school; it certainly isn’t mainstream history or political science. But Heritage Academy isn’t a private school; it is a public charter school – which means that it receives public tax dollars from the state of Arizona to provide public schooling for public-school students. Hence, Heritage Academy must abide by the U.S. Constitution’s prohibitions against governmental promotion of religious beliefs, just like all other public schools must.

But Heritage Academy has refused to do that, despite our repeated efforts to get them to change. Americans United sent three letters to Heritage Academy and to the Arizona state board that oversees public charter schools, asking them to bring the school’s curriculum in line with constitutional requirements.

These controversial tomes, which claim that the U.S. Constitution is based on 'biblical principles,' are used in an Arizona public charter school.

They have ignored us. So today, Americans United filed suit against the school as well as its founder, principal, and American Government teacher, Earl Taylor Jr. and the state officials responsible for giving Heritage Academy public money and the ability to function as a public school.

Taylor founded Heritage Academy 20 years ago; the school has now expanded to three campuses serving more than 1,000 middle- and high-school students. Taylor is also president of a group called the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which publishes the textbooks with religious instruction that Heritage Academy requires the students to read and study.

These NCCS publications include: Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land, Five Thousand Year Leap: A Miracle that Changed the World, and The Making of America, all of which are the work of W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen, who founded NCCS in 1971, was an anti-communist writer and Mormon theologian who was closely associated with the John Birch Society.

Skousen was eventually shunned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for his teachings; he once proclaimed, for example, that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist agent. Skousen’s book The Making of America (which is required reading at Heritage Academy) has also earned attention before: In 1987 California’s Bicentennial Commission approved sale of the book as a fundraiser, until historians pointed out that the book’s tale of American history was racist and flat-out wrong. Even more startling, the Skousen books used at Heritage Academy also promote the spurious view that the Anglo-Saxons who settled Great Britain were the lost tribes of Israel.

Earl Taylor has enjoyed the use of public tax dollars to spread his religious beliefs for more than two decades. Now, with Americans United’s assistance, a Heritage Academy parent and the Rev. David Felten of The Fountains United Methodist Church have filed suit to stop Taylor’s constitutional violations. They believe, as we do – and as the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again – that decisions about religious instruction belong to families and their houses of worship, not to publicly funded schools. Students should learn about government in government class; they shouldn’t be learning their teacher’s preferred theology. Public charter schools, like all public schools, should respect the religious freedom of students and their families to make decisions about religious belief for themselves.

If you know a public charter school that is providing religious instruction to its students, Americans United would like to hear from you. Please contact us at americansunited@au.org