It seems Florida public school students have been handed a pocketful of lies about church-state separation thanks to a state judge who arranged for the distribution of mini copies of the Constitution from a right-wing group with theocratic beliefs.
Back in 2006, then-Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Lewis created a program called Justice Teaching in order to help children learn about the Constitution, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The program is funded by the Florida Bar, and it spent $24,000 in 2007 and 2008 on 80,000 small booklets containing the text of the U.S. Constitution and some commentary. The booklets were created by an Idaho-based group called the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS). The Times said some of those copies have been given out at public schools around the state.
Kids should learn about our legal system, right? It’s a great idea in theory.
Unfortunately the group that made these pint-sized Constitutions is far more dangerous than its name suggests. The National Center for Constitutional Studies was founded by the late W. Cleon Skousen, a far-right Mormon and fringe figure from Utah who in 1971 etsablished what later became the NCCS.
Skousen argued that the Founding Fathers based America’s legal system on the Bible and that the country was meant to mimic the tribes of ancient Israel. He died in 2006, but his disciples continue to push his flawed philosophy. One of his biggest backers is Glenn Beck, who promotes Skousen’s work regularly, the Times said, even writing the forward to a recent edition of one of Skousen’s books.
“There’s no place in the Constitution where they’re talking about the separation of church and state,” said current NCCS head Zeldon Nelson, according to the Times. “The Founding Fathers, if you look back at their writings, all of them were deeply religious and deeply Christian.”
No wonder, then, that scholars have described Skousen and his friends as “paranoid theocrats.”
“There’s conservative, there’s right-wing and there’s off the charts,” Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor, told the Times. “Cleon Skousen was off the charts.”
So it’s no surprise that these NCCS pamphlets include misleading quotes explaining why religion should supposedly be part of public life. For example, John Adams’ statement that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” can be found in the pamphlet next to a collection of spiritual reflections titled “Providence,” the Times said. The newspaper also noted that Adams’ comments were taken out of context as they came from a letter in which he wrote that the United State cannot govern morality. (Adams, a Unitarian who didn’t believe in the Trinity, wouldn’t be considered a Christian by today’s Religious Right.)
The group has also come under fire in the past for making racist statements. In 1987, one of its books called The Making of America was sold by California officials looking to raise money for the state’s bicentennial celebration. Turns out that book referred to black children as “pickaninnies” and claimed that white children attending schools in the South before the Civil War “were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates.”
Nelson actually stood by the statements in the book, which is still available for sale on the NCCS website.
Lewis, who remains on the Florida Supreme Court, said his pet program “has been a project of significant impact.” But the Times report noted that it sent its findings about NCCS to Lewis for his review.
“I certainly don’t endorse this group,” Lewis said. “I went to Sunday school growing up, and I don’t find the Bible in the Constitution.”
That’s good news. In the meantime, Lewis denied that he is trying to push a radical theocratic agenda.
“We do not have an agenda or a partisan view,” he said. “This is the cheapest Constitution we could find. That’s the answer to it.”
The pamphlets cost about 25 cents each, and even at that price it seems Lewis seriously overpaid. Critics of the NCCS agreed.
“It’s shameful,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This group promotes a version of American history that is false at its base. The danger is that this leads people down an entirely false path as to what our country is all about.”
Clearly these pamphlets are filled with egregious lies and distortions, and there is no excuse for Lewis’ failure to vet them – even if he was well intentioned. The internet was around in 2006 and he (or someone) could easily have checked up on NCCS.
Equally worrisome is the fact that NCCS’ influence seems to be growing. Earlier this year, the Springboro, Ohio, school board wanted to offer summer classes for parents using materials prepared by NCCS and another equally radical group, the Institute on the Constitution.
No public schools should ever be distributing theocratic materials to students. It’s plain and simple. If someone wants public school students to have their own copy of the Constitution, that’s great. But they need to make sure that it’s just the Constitution – and nothing more.