In mid-August, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed something called the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” into law. Although the new law has an innocuous-sounding title, it’s really a ticking time-bomb, opponents say.
The law requires every public school in the state to adopt a policy guaranteeing students’ right to religious expression. It mandates that schools create “limited public forums” for religious and other types of speech. A student could, for example, read the morning announcements over a loudspeaker and then lapse into a prayer or mini-sermon.
Many people think the law is yet another effort to get around the Supreme Court’s rulings on separation of church and state in public schools – and they’re expecting a torrent of litigation to result.
“This law is fundamentally at odds with the principle of religious freedom,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group that opposes the machinations of the Religious Right. “It will force public school students to participate in public events that promote religious views – through prayer or even proselytizing – that they and their families may not share or may even find deeply offensive. So rather than protecting religious freedom, this law represents a grave threat to it.
“Rather than providing schools with training and appropriate guidelines for protecting First Amendment freedoms,” Miller told Church & State, “legislators decided to play politics with our children’s faith. So now they have recklessly put local schools and their taxpayers at risk of expensive lawsuits.”
The law is of dubious constitutionality, and some school officials in the state are exasperated. Charles Perkins, Abilene Independent School District’s assistant superintendent, told the Abilene Reporter-News, “I really do feel like the state law has been very confusing. It’s opened some doors that no one thought to go through.”
Perkins added, “Really and truly, we’re just trying to have school, and I think this is a complicating factor.”
The Texas law, which was drafted and promoted by a Religious Right group called the Liberty Legal Institute, is yet another salvo in a long-running battle in America over the proper place of religion in public schools.
The Supreme Court ruled 45 years ago that public schools may not sponsor prayer, Bible reading and other forms of religious worship. Rulings since then have generally extended that principle, while protecting truly voluntary religious activity in the schools.
But some people have never made their peace with the school prayer rulings. After the decisions were handed down in 1962 and ’63, numerous constitutional amendments were introduced in Congress to “restore” prayer to schools. They have been a permanent fixture on the political scene since then, although none has passed.
Frustrated, Religious Right advocates are adopting new strategies to bring state-sanctioned fundamentalist outreach into the schools. The Texas law, critics say, is merely a new twist on an old fight.
It’s not the only one. As another school year got under way last month, public schools around the nation found themselves under siege by groups obsessed with using the schools as instruments of evangelism.
The Texas law reflects the Religious Right’s latest ploy: drafting students as evangelists to preach to a captive audience of their peers. The groups hope that the courts will consider the prayers and sermons offered during the “limited public forum” as a form of free speech that is, technically, not sponsored by the school.
One of the drafters of the law, a Houston attorney named Kelly J. Coghlan, urges students to lead their peers in prayer before the beginning of the school day as well as before football games, graduation ceremonies and other school events.
“For many years, students have been reluctant to stand up and express their faith in public schools for fear of being disciplined,” Coghlan writes on his Web site. “Students should no longer have such fear. Schools are not religion-free zones; school officials are not prayer police; and students of faith are not enemies of the state. The new law makes this clear.”
Coghlan fails to point out that his gambit is legally suspect. After the high court’s school prayer rulings were handed down, some school districts tried to save school prayer by shifting the practice from school officials to student volunteers. One New Jersey school district even convened a daily five-minute assembly during which a student read the daily chaplain’s prayer from the Congressional Record. Courts saw through these ruses and struck them down.
Nevertheless, some students seem eager to take matters into their own hands. Graduation ceremonies are sometimes marked by speakers who veer off into fundamentalist tangents. ABC News reported that in Duval County, Fla., earlier this year, valedictorian Shannon Spaulding of Wolfson High School “quoted the Bible and spoke about Jesus Christ, suggesting that those who didn’t believe would go to hell.”
Spaulding told the crowd, “I want to tell you that Jesus Christ can give you eternal life in heaven. If we die with that sin on our souls, we will immediately be pulled down to hell to pay the eternal price for our sins ourselves.”
Some attendees were predictably displeased with the sermon, and school officials apologized.
In Monument, Colo., a disgruntled valedictorian who misled school officials about the content of her speech is going to court. Erica Corder was one of several speakers during graduation ceremonies at Lewis-Palmer High School in May 2006. Students were required to clear their speeches with the principal first. Corder did so, but then added sermonizing later.
“We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine,” Corder said. “He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don’t already know him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with him.”
School officials threatened to withhold Corder’s diploma until she apologized. She is now in court, arguing that school officials violated her rights.
Other issues public schools face include:
The courtroom defeat of “intelligent design” (ID) in Dover, Pa., two years ago left creationists reeling – but not for long. To no one’s surprise, groups that promote elevating theology over science have re-tooled for the umpteenth time and are again shopping their wares to the public schools.
The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization that promotes ID, has just published Explore Evolution, a textbook it is promoting to biology teachers nationwide. Despite its title, the book does not so much explore evolution as try to debunk it, relying, critics say, on the same old pseudo-scientific arguments that are stock in trade among the creationists.
Opponents of evolution have tried these tactics before. After the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law mandating “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism, creationists began advocating the instruction of “evidence against evolution.” This was simply young-Earth creationism with a new name.
The Discovery Institute’s tactics are more sophisticated. The group does not endorse young-Earth creationism, for example. But critics say the organization’s new book is yet another attempt to slip ID, a religiously grounded concept, into the schools.
“Explore Evolution is a real piece of work,” Joshua Rosenau, public information project director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), told Church & State. “Everything from the author list to the content reveals the book’s deep links with earlier generations of creationism, however hard they try to obscure that heritage.”
The NCSE, based in Oakland, Calif., defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, and Rosenau recently reviewed Explore Evolution for the group. He added, “Like previous creationist works, it attacks evolution with misrepresentations and misunderstandings, but where previous generations of textbooks claimed this as evidence of divine intervention, Explore Evolution leaves that leap to students and teachers. Needless to say, we have yet to identify any criticisms of evolution in the book which do not have a long history in the creationist literature.”
Advocates of sound science education are also watching Texas warily. Gov. Perry has appointed Don McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, as head of the State Board of Education. McLeroy, who was first elected to the board in 1998, has regularly voted to water down instruction about evolution.
The Texas Freedom Network noted that McLeroy promoted ID during a 2005 speech delivered to his fundamentalist church. According to a report on the blog of The Texas Observer, McLeroy told the congregation that intelligent design is a “big tent” that represents religious conservatives’ best shot at undermining evolution.
“Why is Intelligent Design the big tent?” asked McLeroy. “Because we’re all lined up against the fact that naturalism, that nature is all there is. Whether you’re a progressive creationist, recent creationist, young Earth, old Earth, it’s all in the tent of Intelligent Design.”
Pointing out that as chairman, McLeroy will oversee the first overhaul of Texas’ science curriculum standards since 2003, the Observer remarked, “Get ready to redo the Scopes Trial, folks.”
Teaching ‘About’ The Bible
Across the country, public schools are being pressured to adopt classes that teach “about” the Bible. Three states – Texas, Georgia and South Carolina – have adopted legislation authorizing such classes. Other states are considering similar laws.
The concept sounds non-controversial on its face. The Supreme Court, in fact, has stated that objective classes about religion do not violate the First Amendment.
The problem comes with implementation. There is a dearth of material available, and what is out there tends to skew toward conservative, evangelical interpretations of the Bible.
A curriculum created by the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), for example, is being heavily promoted as a middle-of-the-road approach that is appropriate for use in public schools. But Americans United has pointed out that the BLP’s textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, hews to a generally evangelical interpretation, contains errors and has recently undergone several changes at the behest of fundamentalist critics. Other analysts have scored the book for failing to include serious biblical scholarship.
The BLP is run by a wealthy Religious Right activist named Charles Stetson, a graduate of Charles W. Colson’s Wilberforce Centurion training program. Colson, who embraced evangelical Christianity while serving time in prison for Watergate-era offenses, has become increasingly strident and theocratic in his outlook.
Unfortunately, the main alternative to the BLP’s curriculum is even worse. Curriculum materials produced by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) overtly reflect fundamentalist views. Portions of the group’s curriculum have already been declared unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, education officials nationwide are being pressured to introduce Bible classes. Earlier this year, Americans United wrote to officials with the South Carolina Department of Education, which, under a new state law, has been charged with adopting academic standards and appropriate instructional materials for two optional courses on the Bible: History and Literature of the Old Testament and History and Literature of the New Testament.
In a letter to State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and other officials, Americans United advised South Carolina educators to follow specific steps to assure that the classes remain focused on objective education, not religious indoctrination. To survive a legal challenge, the courses must present the Bible in a secular, objective and academic manner, AU asserted. AU also said the classes must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of biblical interpretations; refrain from portraying the Bible as literal, religious truth; and not present a particular sectarian point of view. Several court cases are cited to back up these assertions.
A district in Dorchester County is apparently the first to approve a Bible class under the new law. The instructor, Laura Knotts, has promised to focus on the Bible’s influence on culture, art and literature, but some parents in the community charge that Knotts lacks the academic qualifications to teach the class. Knotts has said she will use the BLP’s textbook but add in material from the National Council.
Some members of the community are concerned. On an Internet bulletin board that is used by some church-state activists in the area, one woman charged that at a candidates’ forum earlier this year, some candidates who now sit on the board advocated teaching creationism alongside of or in place of evolution.
“The rush, the secrecy, and the prior comments give me the feeling an agenda is being pushed instead of real interest in our children’s education,” she wrote. “Is that what we should expect for the future?”
On Sept. 7, AU attorneys wrote to officials at the Dorchester schools, urging them to drop the class as it is currently constituted. The lawyers pointed out that use of the NCBCPS’s materials is especially problematic, as the group’s mission is clearly evangelistic.
Based on what has happened elsewhere, critics of these classes have good cause to be concerned. In Texas, for example, courses that purport to teach “about” the Bible have been popular in several districts. But a study last year by the Texas Freedom Network found that most of the courses came up short.
Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University who authored the study, found that many “teach about the Bible” courses fail to meet minimal academic standards and that many teachers are not qualified.
Chancey found that many districts present the Protestant version of the Bible as true and make other sectarian assumptions. The Bible, he said, is often presented as literal truth and the stories in it as factual. Judaism is portrayed with a Christian bias, sometimes as a faith that was “completed” by Christianity. Other courses have been used to prop up creationism and bogus “Christian nation” historical views.
Many districts in Texas rely on the NCBCPS’s flawed curriculum. That may soon change. In May, eight parents challenged the use of the National Council’s material in Odessa. The Moreno v. Ector County Independent School District lawsuit alleges that the National Council’s curriculum is designed to promote fundamentalist Christianity, not objective instruction about religion.
Religion-Themed Charter/Public Schools
Recently, disputes erupted in New York and Florida over publicly funded schools that have been accused of having a religious focus.
In Florida, controversy erupted over a decision to open Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood. Charter schools are publicly funded but are free of some of the regulations imposed on other public schools. They are often run by community groups, non-profits or business leaders. Despite the looser regulations, charters must still abide by constitutional requirements.
The spat in New York centers on the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, part of a group of small public schools in the city that focuses on foreign languages. Critics allege the school, which offers an Arabic language course, will promote fundamentalist Islam, but they have provided no evidence to back up the claim.
Neither the New York nor the Florida cases involved a school with a fundamentalist Christian approach, but Religious Right groups are certain to adopt the tactic if it survives constitutional scrutiny.
Americans United is monitoring both situations.
On Aug. 7, AU lawyers sent a letter to officials with the Broward County Public Schools, expressing concern about Ben Gamla’s curriculum. The school’s backers have proposed using a Hebrew-language textbook that contains religious content. AU urged officials to withdraw the book.
“Federal courts across the country have also made clear that the prohibition against public-school religious instruction extends to the use of teaching materials that present the Bible or religious doctrine as truth, or that otherwise endorse religious views,” AU’s letter asserted.
The Associated Press reported last month that officials in Broward County will “create training programs for teachers and board members to ensure the separation of church and state” and that “lesson plans will be submitted monthly for district review.”
The situation in New York is murkier, as no proof has been offered that the Khalil Gibran International Academy is teaching religion. It is run in conjunction with the Arab American Family Support Center, an organization the New York City Department of Education refers to as a “secular social service agency.” Its backers insist the school will focus on the Arab language, but not Islam. The school’s Muslim principal was recently replaced with a Jewish principal.
“Religion plays absolutely no part in the school,” an education official in New York City vowed. “This is a public school; it wouldn’t play a part in any of our schools.”
In Washington, D.C., Americans United has also been responding to complaints of inappropriate religious activity at a public charter school. Parents have complained that the headmaster of Washington Latin School, T. Robinson Ahlstrom, leads students in prayer during daily assemblies.
The school is currently housed at Christ Church, and the meetings are held in the sanctuary, which is festooned with religious iconography.
Americans United attorneys have written to Ahlstrom and charter school officials in Washington, telling them to immediately cease the school-sponsored religious activities.
Right on the heels of that controversy, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., announced it would seek to convert eight inner-city parochial schools into public charters. Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said the church can no longer afford to keep the schools open and insisted that as charters, the institutions will be secular.
The Washington Post reported that “the schools would still have strong values, but the schools’ names would change and specific religious references would be stripped from the curriculum.”
Arne Duncan, head of the Chicago public school system, told The Post such conversions are possible. That city, he said, has two charters that spun off from a Catholic school.
“There are some church-state issues,” Duncan said. “But if you’re really trying to innovate and think outside the box, they are absolutely surmountable.”
Attorneys at Americans United will monitor the situation.
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Americans United was founded 60 years ago not just to defend the wall of separation between church and state but also the public school system where many church-state battles take place. At that time, efforts were under way to undercut the public school system by diverting tax money to private religious education. These efforts continue today. (See “Voucher Showdown In Utah)
In addition, public schools today must deal with relentless efforts to “Christianize” them led by aggressive, well-funded Religious Right groups. Ironically, this effort comes at a time when public schools, like American society at large, are more religiously diverse than ever.
Americans United helps lead the fight to ensure that public schools remain focused on teaching instead of preaching.“Public school students can engage in voluntary prayer or talk about religion with their friends, but they have no right to use the machinery of the school to impose religious worship on unwilling participants,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Nor do school officials have the right to meddle in the religious lives of students, promote worship or sponsor religious activity. Religious instruction is best left in the hands of parents.”