Legal victories generally take many years to achieve, but on rare occasions they come swiftly. Court decisions are often based on important, but technical, matters that seem far removed from the daily interests of most people, but sometimes external “people pressures” have an appropriate effect on the legal process. Both of these rarer forms of judicial resolution came to bear in resolving a controversial elective course being taught at Frazier Mountain High School in the small town of Lebec, Calif.
Almost as soon as the Board of Trustees of the El Tejon Unified School District approved a between-semesters “intersession” class called “Philosophy of Design” on Jan. 1, 2006, we started hearing complaints. Some came directly from Americans United members, while others came via our friends at the National Center for Science Education.
Local citizens were concerned that the course violated church-state separation and would undermine science education in the entire school. Although not a required course, it was clear from the curriculum description and syllabus that this appeared to be a primarily biblical attack on the evidence for evolution. It was a kind of “infomercial” for creationism, with academic credit attached. The teacher later told the press that “this is the class that the Lord wanted me to teach.”
Within a few days of news of the course appearing in newspapers, other school boards in California and around the nation were contacting Lebec about how to clone this class for their own use. After all, some noted, I had told The New York Times last year that “matters of religion and philosophy…can be discussed objectively in public schools, but not in biology class.’’
William Shakespeare wrote that “a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Collaterally, I would add, “A thorn by any other word would still hurt your finger.” This class was an academic thorn. Although there are ways to address philosophical issues around whether there is “purpose” to life, and ways to compare religions’ creation accounts in a real and objective class, Lebec’s little experiment was nowhere close to such a process.
The course was only set to last for a few weeks, but attorneys in our legal department, after getting input from a variety of expert sources, decided that immediate intervention was required. They filed a motion in federal court for a “temporary restraining order” to stop the class mid-stream.
In such an action, you have to convince the judge that there is a substantial likelihood that you will prevail on the merits. Virtually the entire AU legal staff launched into a work marathon – some literally stayed up all night and into the next day – to obtain scientific expert witness statements and carefully document every fact they’d need to prove.
Our lawsuit didn’t please everyone, of course. The highly opinionated TV preacher Pat Robertson asserted on his “700 Club” that it is “terribly wrong” to allow “Barry Lynn and a bunch of atheists” to go to court to stop a class like this. In fact, at least one of the 11 plaintiffs in the case is an atheist (not that his beliefs about religion are any of Robertson’s business). But another is a Quaker, one is a Methodist, a third is a Congregationalist and a fourth is a Buddhist. All share the view that it is “terribly wrong” for public schools to promote a religious perspective through the curriculum.
These parents found that the legal action had awakened strong sentiment on both sides. A local newspaper devoted six pages to “letters to the editor” on the controversy. The closely divided school board was being asked by many to reverse its 3-2 decision to start the course.
During its regularly scheduled Friday meeting, the board heard that message loud and clear. Our field department had alerted our members in the area and worked with allied organizations to get the word out. This resulted in a tremendous turnout of opponents and included responses ranging from a United Church of Christ pastor to an activist with the League of Women Voters. According to longtime AU activist Harry Schwartzbart: “I have never been prouder of AU in all of my 55 years with it.”
Board members held an executive session and unanimously agreed to consider a settlement of the case. After two more days, the board agreed to drop the class before its scheduled concluding date and to never offer anything like it again. That decision was a strong signal to other districts that efforts to sneak creationism into public school through a back door won’t work.
On the very day that our Lebec suit was filed, I was in Dallas at the Park Cities Baptist Church to attend a memorial service for Dr. Foy Valentine, a man forced from his job with the Southern Baptist Convention for his powerful stands on racial justice, reproductive choice and religious freedom.
Foy served in Americans United’s leadership since he joined our Board of Trustees in 1965. He was one of the most stalwart supporters of my candidacy for executive director. As I sat listening to what was probably the most powerful set of eulogies I’ve heard about anyone in public life, I knew that Foy would have been happy knowing that a group whose history he shaped so prominently could collaboratively achieve the ultimate result we did in Lebec.
Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.