When Teachers Preach

Student's Lawsuit Challenges Missouri School District's Religious Bias

It didn't take long for Evelyn Welk to suspect that something was amiss in her 16-year-old daughter's World History class.

Two days into the class, Welk's daughter, Ashley Heckman, a sophomore at Truman High School in Independence, Mo., came home with her first reading assignment: A two-page excerpt from a sermon by the late fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher W.A. Criswell titled "The Hoaxes of Anthropology."

The sermon, first delivered by Criswell in 1957, ridicules the findings of modern anthropology and attacks evolution.

"This sermon debunked anthropological information," Welk said. "I saw it as someone trying to impose a religious ideology. An attack on evolution should not be part of a history class."

Welk was further alarmed later in the year when Ashley told her the class had watched a video about the birth and early life of Jesus Christ. The video, "Jesus and His Times: The Story Begins," was produced by the Reader's Digest Assdodciation in 1991. While the video does not take a strictly devotional approach, Welk was upset because it tends to present Jesus' birth and early life, as recorded in the Books of Luke and Matthew, as factual.

Welk contends that other aspects of teacher Chris Earley's classroom instruction were slanted toward Christianity. The doctrines of other religions, when taught, were prefaced with statements like "Muslims believe" and "Buddhists believe," she said, while "Christian doctrines were stated as fact."

As an example, Welk notes that the Paganism of the early Greeks and the rise of Judaism were barely discussed in the class. By contrast, when the class talked about the Roman Empire, Welk said, Earley spent most of the time discussing the life of Jesus and the Christianization of Rome, even though for the vast majority of its history the Roman Empire was officially Pagan.

Welk met with Earley, Principal Michael Jeffers and other school officials to resolve the problem but believed she was making little headway. The school officials, she told Church & State, were convinced that their activities were in line with the law.

"They did not believe they were doing anything unconstitutional, and we did," Welk said.

During one meeting, Welk said, Earley told her he and Jeffers would eventually "convince me why they were right."

Added Welk, "During the meeting, there were numerous implications that the only moral children were Christian children. Earley said we could not teach history without teaching religion. He seemed unable to separate his religious views from the instruction. At that point, I contacted the ACLU."

ACLU officials also met with the same school officials but were unable to resolve the matter. Suspecting that the problem might end up in court, staffers at the ACLU of Kansas and Western Misdsouri contacted Americans United and asked for help with the case.

On May 1, the two groups decided they had waited long enough and filed a lawsuit in federal court, asserting that the Independence School District had violated the First Amendment by failing to curb Earley's promotion of religion.

The Welk v. Independence School Disdtrict case asserts that Earley used the World History course to promote his version of Christianity in several ways. It asks that the practices be terminated and that the school take steps to keep religious indoctrination out of the classroom.

Officials at Americans United point out that the organization does not oppose objective instruction about religion in public schools. Americans United has stated repeatedly that public schools can teach about religion's role in world and U.S. history without violating church-state separation. Such instruction, however, must be balanced and objective and intended to educate, not indoctrinate. Truman High, AU asserts, has stepped over the line.

"It's the job of parents, not public schools, to teach children religion," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "The Constitution forbids public schools to promote Christianity or any other faith. Teachers may not abuse the public trust by pushing their personal religious agenda in the classroom."

School officials have so far refused to comment on the case. But attorneys with Americans United and the ACLU say the lawsuit is legally sound and should be resolved quickly if the judge follows existing precedent.

Numerous courts have ruled that public schools may not endorse or promote Christianity or other religions. Since the Supreme Court's rulings banning mandatory school prayer in 1962 and '63, dozens of federal courts have upheld the idea that public schools may not get into the business of teaching religion.

Furthermore, teachers do not have a free speech right to proselytize students or to urge them to adopt different religious beliefs. Allowing teachers such latitude, the courts have ruled, not only violates separation of church and state but also infringes on parental rights.

At the same time, courts have upheld the right of public schools to teach about religion in an objective manner. In the landmark 1963 school prayer case Abington Township School District v. Schempp, Justice Tom Clark pointed out, "[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.... Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amenddment."

But the line between legitimate indstruction and promotion of religion can be blurred by Religious Right activists determined to bring their faith into the classroom. In recent years, Religious Right groups have begun pushing the envelope and trying to introduce sectarian themes in public schools under the guise of teaching about religion.

In Greensboro, N.C., Elizabeth Ridenhour runs the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a group closely aligned with TV preacher D. James Kennedy. The Council claims it merely promotes teaching about the Bible; in fact, its curriculum reflects fundamentalist dogma and is akin to Sunday School lessons.

James Dobson's Focus on the Family has also shown great interest in this strategy. In 1998, the organization's Teachers in Focus magazine recommended that public school teachers engage in "modifying classroom activities, changing homework assignments, passing out supplementary readings, presenting alternative viewpoints or making other changes" to challenge "the secular status quo in the subject you teach." The publication went so far as to recommend that these steps be taken without approval from the principal.

Americans United attorneys say it's difficult to know if that's what happened in Independence. But the organization remains alert to ongoing efforts to violate church-state separation in public schools and is aware of evolving Religious Right strategies.

Responding to an inquiry from the Kansas City Star, officials at the Independence School District declined to comment on the case directly but did issue copies of the district's policy on religion. The policy states that "espousal of any particular religious denomination or faith is strictly forbidden" but says "teachers may teach about religion with information being presented at an appropriate maturity level for students."

The district also charged that Welk failed to follow proper procedures for challenging curriculum materials, an allegation Welk and her attorneys dispute.

In an interview with Church & State, Welk recounted her efforts to resolve the matter through meetings with school officials and noted that as early as last fall she asked the ACLU to contact the school on her behalf.

ACLU attorney John M. Simpson said he talked to officials at the school in October and December of last year as well as this April but found them unresponsive.

"It seemed they were not doing anything, so we decided it was necessary to file a lawsuit," Simpson told the Star.

Welk told Church & State she simply wants the school to abide by the First Amendment.

"I believe in the Constitution," she said. "I think this situation is pretty blatant, and that most people of the Christian faith would not want anyone else teaching their children about religion. Separation of church and state is there for a reason."