A report by People For the American Way Foundation
Table of Contents
- The Continuing Assault on Public Education
- Textbook Controversies
- Religion and Public Schools
- Sexuality Education
- Anti-Gay Activity
Religious Right political groups are more engaged than ever in an assault on public education in America. People For the American Way Foundation has long documented the tactics, strategies and targets in a battle that is tearing communities apart across the land. This battle plays out both locally and nationally and the Religious Right has a multifaceted strategy.
On the one hand, Religious Right leaders urge Christians to abandon public schools, but on the other hand, they seek to control public school curricula and use public schools to proselytize. By stirring up controversy about the public schools, the Right hopes to poison Americans on the very notion of public education and, at the same time, change the curricula in public schools to reflect its narrow agenda.
School vouchers are a key part of this strategy — getting federal funding for Christian schools. In recent years, most public attention has focused on the issue of school vouchers. Indeed, vouchers are the Right's most heavily promoted education issue, and the effort feeds in large measure on the rest of the Religious Right's other anti-education work. People For the American Way Foundation has documented the voucher movement for many years. But to examine this effort by the Religious Right only in the context of any single education issue — be it the push for vouchers or school censorship — is to miss the larger campaign to discredit the very notion of public education.
Years ago Jerry Falwell said, "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, there won't be any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them." This spirit still persists in Religious Right leaders like Focus on the Family's James Dobson, who has supported a growing movement to convince Christian parents to pull their children out of public schools altogether.
In recent years, two other Religious Right leaders, Robert Simonds of Citizens for Excellence in Education and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, have promoted initiatives to encourage all Christian parents to withdraw their students (and their support) from public schools nationwide. Politicians like Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) - who proudly touts that he has "been calling for an end to the government monopoly school system" for over 20 years — and radio personalities like Dr. Laura Schlessinger have also played high-profile roles in this movement. In her April 9, 2002 broadcast, Dr. Laura said, "I stand with Dr. James Dobson. Take your kids out of public schools."
In the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, most Americans found solace in their family and community. From the outset, many Religious Right groups were ready to offer their narrow prescriptions for the nation, but mandating sectarian religion and censoring classroom materials is not new and it's certainly no remedy. The Religious Right is very committed to injecting sectarian religion into the classroom via creationism and school-sponsored religious activity, and to attacking curricula and materials, such as comprehensive sex and science education, as well as certain classroom and library books. This report provides a snapshot of current Religious Right activity in public schools.
The Supreme Court last made a major ruling on teaching creationism in public school in 1987. The landmark case Edwards v. Aguillard struck down a 1981 Louisiana law requiring that any public school teaching evolution must grant equal time to "creation science" on the grounds that the latter advanced a religious doctrine. The Court also stated that teaching "a variety of scientific theories" about human origins might be valid "with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction." Most creationist efforts since 1987 have attempted to exploit this language.
This new breed of creationist activism now dominates the movement, and has adopted the moniker "intelligent design" (ID). The main methods of injecting the ID/creationist agenda into public school curricula are via textbook disclaimers and the language of state science standards. The purpose of these efforts is to delegitimize evolution and minimize its profile in science education. There is also a growing movement to insert intelligent design into science curricula via books and lectures. Intelligent design groups do not concentrate their energy on producing scientific research, but on providing tactical and legal advice on introducing the topic into science classes via clubs, speakers and supplementary texts.
But some old-line creationists, represented by groups such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research, refuse to cloak their language by simply advocating "intelligent design." Religious Right groups like Focus on the Family (FOF) are also playing a central role, working directly and through state affiliates to challenge the teaching of evolution. In October 2001, Focus on the Family urged California students to write to the U.S. Justice Department and describe "how you and your faith were offended by evolution being taught as fact." If there was any doubt of FOF's intention, the piece is titled, "Californians Have Chance to Fight Evolution in Schools."
State Science Standards
In the 2001-02 school year, the battleground over science instruction shifted to Ohio from Kansas, which had drawn national attention when its state school board eliminated evolution from the state's science standards in 1999. The Kansas board eventually reversed it decision, but evolution opponents saw an opportunity in Ohio to take their Kansas success one step further. A state law signed in 2001 requires the state school board to adopt academic content standards in six areas, including science. A group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO) is leading the effort to insert intelligent design creationism into the standards. SEAO is a project of the American Family Association of Ohio and is also affiliated with the Intelligent Design Network.
As in Kansas, the proceedings have turned into a showcase for the "intelligent design" movement. Speakers and lawyers from ID think tanks like the Discovery Institute and the Intelligent Design Network have appeared before state meetings and made the issue a statewide media-driven controversy. National and state groups are working together on the issue. The local Religious Right group Citizens for Community Values worked with the Discovery Institute and Focus on the Family to broadcast the anti-evolution video "Icons of Evolution" on a number of Ohio television stations. Other state-level Religious Right groups like the Ohio Roundtable and the Eagle Forum of Ohio are getting into the act, hosting intelligent design speakers and supporting SEAO's push to change the science standards.
After an extended period of public input and revision, the state board of education is scheduled to consider draft standards during Fall 2002 and, according to Ohio law, must adopt science standards in December 2002. The political fight is likely to intensify as the final vote approaches.
Hawaii and Nebraska also saw similar attacks involving science standards over the 2001-02 school year. In both cases, creationists failed to either add creationism or de-emphasize evolution in state policy, but it's clear that such efforts are the most active front in the battle for objective science education free of religious influence.
Inserting Disclaimers in Textbooks
In April 2002, the Cobb County, Georgia Board of Education decided to draft a disclaimer regarding the teaching of evolution to be inserted in science textbooks in response to a petition effort that gained support via local Bible study classes. Modeled on a successful effort in Alabama, anti-evolution forces won a disclaimer to be inserted in biology textbooks in Fall 2002 reading: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."
One parent who requested board action was not satisfied with the decision, saying she wanted an elective science course exploring the controversy and wanted the insert to more clearly define alternative explanations. Another parent was more blunt, saying, "We believe the Bible is correct in that God created man. I don't expect the public school system to teach only creationism, but I think it should be given its fair share." In August 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia filed a federal lawsuit against the district asking for the disclaimer's removal.
Since then, the school board voted unanimously to consider changing district policy relating to science and evolution education. The proposed policy states, in part, that "discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education, including the study of the origin of the species." The board chair said it was not clear if the proposed language would allow creationism to be discussed. The Cobb County board will spend 30 days reviewing the proposed policy change and vote on the matter at the end of September.
Other Creationist Attacks on Science Education
In June 2002, the Annville-Cleona, Pennsylvania School Board rejected a series of reading texts because of objections that it contained the theory of evolution in some stories and "radical environmentalism" in others. School board member Kathy Horst said she would like to see the Pennsylvania School Board Association consider creationism as an issue for its legislative platform. "I want to see that the theory of intelligent design be taught in our classrooms, as well as evolution" said Horst."
The Greensburg Salem, Pennsylvania school district is considering a proposal to teach "creation science" alongside evolution in its high school science classes. A recent graduate who is currently a student at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University requested the change. The school board had considered adding "creation science" to an advanced biology curriculum in 1999, but rejected the proposal on a 5-4 vote. The science department is conducting an initial review of the proposal, but a final decision will be made by the school board.
In Joes, Colorado the Liberty J-4 School District voted 5-0 to reverse an earlier unanimous decision to include creationism in science classes. In Columbus, IN the district is yet to decide how to act on a request to add a "creation science" elective class.
Creationist Activity in Federal and State Legislatures
In 2001, the ID creationist leader Phillip Johnson helped craft language for an anti-evolution resolution to be inserted in a federal education reform bill in an attempt to give local anti-evolution activists another tool. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) sponsored the language in a non-binding "sense of the Senate" resolution. The resolution declared that, "where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject." Though Sen. Santorum claimed that the amendment did not "not try to dictate curriculum to anybody," more than 80 science groups decried the anti-evolution agenda behind the resolution. The Santorum language was removed from the final version of the education bill, and a compromise version with less strident anti-evolution language was instead included in the conference report that accompanied the bill.
Some have sought to give the Santorum language the force of law despite the fact that the language was part of a non-binding resolution and was relegated to a report that was not officially part of the final legislation. Reps. John A. Boehner and Steve Chabot, both Ohio Republicans, invoked the Santorum language in a letter to the Ohio school board suggesting that references to ID should be included in the state's science standards. In Georgia, the Santorum language was the basis for an anti-evolution bill that eventually died in committee. Anti-evolution bills were also introduced, but ultimately failed to progress, in state legislatures in Ohio, Washington and Mississippi.
The Right has long looked to public school textbooks as a way of promoting its political agenda. Current right-wing strategies to influence textbook development have their origins in the 1960s, when Texas-based activists Mel and Norma Gabler first led a nationwide effort to purge public school texts of what they viewed as the "mental child abuse" of liberal ideas. The Gablers were among the first to recognize just how influential textbooks can be. As they put it, "Textbooks mold nations because they determine how a nation votes, what it becomes, and where it goes."
The Right is particularly vigilant regarding what it sees as liberal bias, such as the promotion of evolution over creationism, the environment over capitalism, or anti-Christian ideology in textbooks. In recent months, the Religious Right has tried to take advantage of anxiety after the September 11 terrorist attacks to promote Christianity in public schools. In 2002, two right-wing groups, California's Pacific Justice Institute and the Michigan-based Thomas More Center for Law and Justice, have taken legal action against California school districts for using a textbook they view as "pro-Islamic, anti-Christian propaganda." According to a press release from the Pacific Justice Institute, Houghton Mifflin's Across the Centuries "puts the history of the Islamic faith in a purely positive light, while depicting Christians in a negative light." For its part, Houghton Mifflin denies pro-Muslim bias in its books: "[T]hese textbooks praise many cultures for their contributions to civilization. In turn, the textbooks also include the negative aspects of each culture, including instances of Muslim religious intolerance, military aggression and murder."
Case Study: Texas Textbooks
In no other place is the Right's influence on textbooks so profound as it is in Texas. The Lone Star State is the country's second largest purchaser of public school textbooks. As a result, publishers often go out of their way to gain acceptance for their books in Texas. Publisher efforts to cater to conservative tastes in Texas have a national impact - a fact not lost on the state's right wing. As the field director of ultraconservative Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy puts it, "The bottom line is that Texas and California are the biggest buyers of textbooks in the country, and what we adopt is what the rest of the country gets."
Public school textbooks in Texas must be approved by the elected State Board of Education, which holds public hearings annually to review texts before they are purchased by the state. Until recently, this body, which has a majority of Religious Right allies, had considerable latitude in rejecting texts that it deemed inappropriate. This led to widespread abuses. In one instance, a health text drew criticism from the Board because it contained line drawings of a female breast used to demonstrate self-exams. Meanwhile, some Board members complained that textbooks described slavery in an overly negative way. The rules for textbook adoption changed in 1995 when the Texas Senate, fearing that the right wing was using the process to promote ideology, limited the Board's rejection authority to texts that contained factual errors.
However, the Right has found ways around the new adoption rules. In recent years, right-wing board members and groups have shown a remarkable ability to expand the definition of the term "factual" to justify rejection of texts they find unpalatable. According to the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), "Part of it is your definition of fact. If by facts we want to say the only thing that counts is two plus two equals four, then we did more than [check facts]. But a factual check means more than that." Oftentimes, it means screening texts for perceived liberal bias.
Right-wing groups currently conduct two separate outside reviews of textbooks prior to the Board's annual public hearings — one from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a second by a coalition called the Working Partnership for Textbook Reviews. The latter group is composed of such ultraconservative mainstays as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Gabler Group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Concerned Women for America. These organizations bring considerable resources to bear in their attempts to influence the process. For example, TPPF, which has a team of 16 reviewers, plans to spend at least $100,000 in 2002 to examine textbooks. Thus far, these investments have paid off.
In 2001, the Board reviewed public school science textbooks. Pressed by right-wing groups, it initially rejected two environmental science texts, Creating a Sustainable Future and How the World Works and Your Place in It. TPPF argued that these volumes were "full of vitriol against Western civilization." One witness testifying before the Board urged members to reject these titles because they made "discriminatory comments about Christianity and property ownership…. The publishers believe that, if we were pagan serfs of the king working with our hands and told when to procreate, that would be utopia." At the urging of TPPF, the publisher of How the World Works made revisions to the text so as to portray industry in a kinder light. The Board approved the revised text.
Meanwhile, an environmental textbook financed in part by mining companies won Board approval. It is not entirely surprising that this title received a warm reception from the Board, given the connections of some of its members. Grace Shore, the Board's chairwoman, is co-owner of a Texas-based energy services company. As Shore put it, "The oil and gas industry should be consulted. We always get a raw deal."
The Board is currently examining social studies texts, a process scheduled for completion by November 2002. In July, the Board rejected a textbook entitled Out of Many: A History of the American People. Again, it appears as though the Board based its decision on ideological — rather than factual — grounds. Chairwoman Shore expressed her distaste for the book in this way: "It said that there were approximately 50,000 prostitutes west of the Mississippi in this timeframe. I don't know where they got their information, but the way it was written it made it sound like there were none east of the Mississippi, they were all west of the Mississippi. And then I thought it was just demeaning of women in the West…it made it sound like they were all prostitutes."
In recent years, some publishers have begun to exercise self-censorship, altering material that might be deemed offensive by a few very active right-wing groups in Texas. This year, the cover photo of a proposed high school economics textbook features several male sculptures from the front of the New York Stock Exchange building. The publisher drew in loincloths to cover up the normally naked statues, rather than risk a potential approval challenge.
"For the past 30, 35 years, we as a nation have abandoned God. And in one case, the Supreme Court yesterday says you can't have a picture of Jesus, you can't have the Ten Commandments, you can't pray in schools, you can't read the Bible. And the Supreme Court continuously takes its fingers and sticks them in the eye of Almighty God." — Televangelist Pat Robertson, 700 Club, 5-3-95
The Religious Right axiom that "God has been kicked out of the public schools" is simply not true. Individual students are free to pray and share their faith with others in the same voluntary, non-disruptive manner that they may engage in other speech at school. The Supreme Court has consistently held that the government may not sponsor or endorse religious exercises or activities. Similarly, "captive audience" prayer by students or teachers is not permitted during classes or over school intercoms where students have no choice but to attend. But the courts have clearly protected the rights of students to engage in religious speech voluntarily, subject to the same sort of time, place and manner restrictions commonly applied to all other forms of student expression. Nevertheless, the Religious Right has been trying to return organized religious observances to schools since the Supreme Court banned organized, school-sponsored prayer almost 40 years ago.
With the legal and organizing assistance of prominent Religious Right legal groups, such as Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the American Family Association (AFA), to name just two, schools must increasingly contend with lawsuits brought by those asserting that schools are infringing on their religious rights. In fact, more than 100 firms specializing in cases dealing with religion now exist nationwide.
Ever-prepared for opportunities to undermine the separation of church and state, Religious Right organizations and their political allies used the period of mourning and reflection that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks to promote their long-held agenda. Public schools across the country were bombarded with requests for school prayer, Bible curricula and the posting of the Ten Commandments or the national motto, "In God We Trust." Many say they saw an opportunity to push for their cause in the changed political climate. "Surely, Sept. 11 helps our case," said Rep. Randal Mangham, a George state legislator who suggested that the Georgia General Assembly revisit its law mandating a moment of silence in schools to explicitly include prayer. Mangham said he'd been considering his legislation for a while. Religious Right and political groups also sensed a change. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, applauded the changed mood. "There's more religious expression going on in our public schools than at any time in history. This is going to change the tone of public schools in America."
Texas was just one of the states where the Religious Right used the events of September 11 to promote its agenda of re-establishing organized, state-sponsored prayer in public schools. Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed organized school prayer saying that he saw no problem with ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court ban organized school prayer "at this very crisis moment in our history." Perry was defending school officials' decision to invite a Protestant minister to open a middle school assembly with a Christian prayer in October 2001. Perry also said he was planning on making school prayer a campaign issue in his next election. Jerry Falwell praised Perry in a widely distributed email saying it was good politics to press for school prayer after the terrorist attacks. "Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks on our nation, this might have been an unwise campaign approach. But not now," Falwell said.
Similar incidents occurred in 2001 in states across the country — from South Carolina, where state legislators wanted to turn the "moment of silence" into a moment of prayer, to Illinois, where the state House unanimously passed a bill to allow students to initiate group prayer in public schools, to West Covina, California where the school board voted to become the first district in Los Angeles County to begin the day with a moment of silence.
In God We Trust
Since September 11, interest in posting the national motto "In God We Trust" in public schools has grown. There is a vast difference between the appearance of this message on coins and dollar bills, on the one hand, and in public schools, on the other. When these words are directed at captive audiences of young school children by their schools, they send an impermissible message of government endorsement of religion. The Supreme Court has long distinguished between speech in general public settings and religious speech directed at public school students because students "are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary."
The American Family Association began its campaign to place posters displaying "In God We Trust" in public schools almost two years ago. Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove signed legislation requiring the motto in every public school classroom, auditorium and cafeteria throughout the state early in 2001. AFA then turned its attention to the rest of the country. AFA president Don Wildmon reports that since September, requests for the poster have gone up and the AFA Center for Law & Policy has offered to defend any school that is challenged for putting up the poster at no cost. AFA says nearly a quarter million posters are being displayed.
Michigan, Utah, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, Virginia and Louisiana are all states that have introduced or already passed legislation allowing or requiring schools to post "In God We Trust" plaques or posters. Randy Sharp, American Family Association's director of special projects, described the motto as a historical rather than a religious document. At the same time, Sharp said, his group has specifically pushed for "In God We Trust" posters in schools because "we think it's important for young people to recognize the religious heritage of our nation."
In Virginia, every school will be required to hang a poster with the words "In God We Trust, the National Motto, enacted by Congress in 1956," in accordance with a law signed by Gov. Mark R. Warner in May 2002. In several districts, schools will hang posters provided by the Family Policy Network, a state affiliate of AFA, which has been pushing the Virginia General Assembly to pass the law for the last two years.
Not all Virginians are happy with the new law. Mainstream Loudoun, a Loudoun County group active in First Amendment issues, has offered to donate posters with the motto "E pluribus unum" to all county schools. They say that the original motto, meaning "out of many, one," that was chosen by the founding fathers, is more inclusive and respectful of diversity.
It is perfectly acceptable to teach about the Bible in public schools, so long as the instruction is presented objectively, as part of secular education, and not as history or from a particular sectarian perspective. However, across the country, school districts are being asked to adopt a Bible curriculum produced by a private group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). The council says the aim is to foster an understanding of literature and history, but Elizabeth Ridenour, president of the group, has described her efforts as an attempt to "expose the kids to the biblical Christian worldview…." The NCBCPS claims that 101,000 students have taken the class in 195 school districts across the country, although it consistently refuses to provide details.
In Louisiana, NCBCPS' curriculum has been approved in eight parishes (counties) following the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's decision to leave the choice to local school boards. [People For the American Way Foundation sent a letter urging the state board to reject the course.]
The Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, has been actively involved in lobbying the state board and urging members to push local school boards to institute the program. Ridenour praised the group saying, "The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools appreciates the tremendous amount of time and work that Louisiana Family Forum has contributed toward returning Bible curriculum to the public schools of Louisiana. [They] have been invaluable in the success of numerous parishes implementing the elective Bible course and also in disseminating information to people statewide."
Florida has seen a number of incidents regarding the NCBCPS curriculum. The Miami-Dade County school board has recently been asked by the United Teachers of Dade's Christians for Morality caucus to adopt a new Bible course using the NCBCPS curriculum, and is preparing to conduct a "feasablility study" as to teaching a secondary school Bible course. [PFAWF has explained to the Miami school board why it would be improper for the board to offer a course based on the NCBCPS curriculum.] They are doing so despite the example of Lee County Florida, where an earlier edition of the NCBCPS "New Testament" curriculum was successfully challenged in court. The case cost the school system staff time and money including $95,000 in the plaintiffs' legal fees. [PFAWF was co-counsel to the plaintiffs in Lee County.]
In Rhea County, Tennessee, the same county where the Scopes trial was held, Judge Allan Edgar decided in February 2002 that the school district's Bible classes violated the First Amendment. The classes, held in three elementary schools, were taught by students from Bryan College, a Christian college in Dayton named for William Jennings Bryan. Judge Allen's ruling said county officials, "acted with both purpose and effect to endorse and advance religion in the public schools." At a school board meeting following the ruling, the audience of about 300 applauded as the board voted unanimously to appeal the decision. Board member Bruce Majors said, "we want to teach our children that the Bible is the truth. Our only course is an appeal."
The Right has been bashing sexuality education programs for years. In 1981 Phyllis Schlafly wrote that the "major goal of nearly all sex education curricula being taught in the schools is to teach teenagers (and sometimes children) how to enjoy fornication without having a baby and without feeling guilty." Religious Right groups have been remarkably successful at promoting the myth that comprehensive sexuality education programs do not discuss the merits of abstinence, but simply give information on how to have sex. That myth has fueled numerous challenges to such curricula in communities across the country.
Groups like Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition have developed two strategies in fighting sex education in public schools — pushing to have it removed from the classroom altogether and taking control over what is taught. The first strategy had little success, since large majorities of people want schools to provide comprehensive sexuality education. Since the mid-90s, the Religious Right has made serious inroads with the latter strategy. Through skillful lobbying and influence, the Right has radically changed funding for sex education, shifting congressional and state subsidies to programs that do not provide vital health information.
Sex education curricula generally follow two basic models. Abstinence-only education instructs students to "just say no" to sex until marriage and severely limits — or omits entirely — information about birth control, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), and HIV/AIDS. Comprehensive sex education, sometimes known as "abstinence-plus," emphasizes abstinence in addition to providing medical and scientific information about contraception, abortion and STD, and often discusses sexual orientation.
Early Religious Right programs — then known as "chastity education" - were challenged due to their patently religious instruction, for example, the suggestion that students "take Christ on a date as a chaperone." Direct religious instructions were ordered removed, but this problem still plagues abstinence-only education programs that are supported by congressional funding and instituted by the states. In 1996, opponents of comprehensive sex education attached a provision to fund abstinence-only programs to popular welfare-reform legislation. Since then, federal funding has increased nearly 3,000 percent. As Governor of Texas and as a presidential candidate, George W. Bush championed abstinence-only programs, vowing that his "administration will elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal." President Bush has continued to embrace these programs and has increased their federal funding, winning him the praise of Religious Right leaders like James Dobson. Dobson's Focus on the Family reported in February 2002 that President Bush's budget increase for these programs brought their funding level to nearly that of comprehensive sexuality education.
Not surprisingly, many states with education budget problems have welcomed the increase, which has led to the widespread institutionalization of "abstinence-only" education. With the increased federal funding for abstinence education in recent years, a multi-million dollar industry was born. The abstinence-only programs first pushed by Religious Right groups are now created by businesses and bought by school districts and states using federal tax dollars.
Since the Right succeeded in getting its agenda subsidized by the federal government, the focus has largely shifted from attacking comprehensive sexuality education programs towards promoting abstinence-only curricula. The Abstinence Clearing House, a Religious Right group that "serves agencies on a national, state and local level," recommends that parents have their children opt out of comprehensive sex education and lobby their school board to adopt abstinence-only curricula. What follows is a snapshot of current battles over sexuality education in local communities.
In Spring 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Louisiana for using its annual $1.6 million in federal funds to promote religion through "abstinence-only" curricula. The suit contends that the state has spent money on "Christ-centered" skits, religious youth revivals and biblical instruction on purity. "Passion 4 Purity" was one of the programs Louisiana supported, a program that teaches abstinence through "scriptural concepts" by instructing students that "God desires sexual purity as a way of life." In another case tax dollars were used to support a special kind of field trip — in the name of abstinence — to take children to abortion clinics for prayer vigils.
In May 2002, after a public hearing and debate, the Wake County School Health Advisory Council reviewed and adopted recommendations for changes to its "Healthful Living" curriculum that would allow teachers to discuss topics such as contraception. In 1995, North Carolina passed a law that mandated abstinence-only-until-marriage education across the state and Wake County has become one of the few school districts that has challenged the legislated "abstinence-only" curriculum. Throughout this debate in the country, a group of parents have organized to reject the comprehensive sex education program by sponsoring petitions and lobbying local politicians. While this is a step towards changing the curriculum, these recommendations are not official policy. In Fall 2002, there will be more debates in Wake County and possibly a final decision on the curriculum.
California is the only state that has never accepted federal "abstinence-only" program money. The state based this decision on its statewide evaluation of abstinence-only education in the early 1990s, which revealed that the program wasn't effective. However, even a state-level rejection of federal funding for abstinence-only education doesn't mean students are getting comprehensive information.
One example reveals the demand for comprehensive sex education by parents and students alike. In May 2002, the Modesto Board of Education voted 4-3 to ban a discussion of teen pregnancy, contraception, and abortion in the human relations class, arguing that the "sensitive" subjects should only be addressed "in a health class where abstinence is the key message." The teacher proposed the changes to the class, which focuses on diversity and conflict resolution, at her students' request and received a parental permission slip from 34 out of 35 students. The primary complaint of the students was that their official health class "glosses over" sexuality and that the class is restricted to examining the physical aspects of sex and sexuality while ignoring critical issues such as peer pressure and personal beliefs. One sophomore emphasized the need for the school to address this issue more directly by stating that "there are just too many students out there having sex." Another student asked, "Is preaching abstinence effective? Ask the teens." Students have voted unanimously to address the school board and challenge the district's decision.
Saving America's Foundation Enterprise (SAFE) has launched what the group calls a "campaign of truth" whose goal is to require schools to teach students who are questioning their sexuality or feel they are gay or lesbian that they can make themselves straight, a highly controversial idea rejected by the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association. In February 2002, the Virginia Senate Education & Health Committee stalled an anti-gay bill that would have prevented any discussions of homosexuality except as "crimes against nature." However, the group of parents who have organized to defeat the "pro-homosexual agenda" say they'll be back, stronger, for the 2003 legislative session.
"From Hollywood, the media, the government, the public schools…right into our churches, we are now seeing the rotten fruit and stench of the sin of homosexuality in our land." — Stephen Bennett, Stephen Bennett Ministries
The Religious Right may have become more circumspect in its language when it comes to creationism and textbook censorship, but its anti-gay rhetoric is as strident as ever. Of course, this does not mean that the landscape for gay students remains the same as it was a decade ago. On the contrary, many public schools have made great strides towards becoming safer and more open places for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth, largely due to the strength and courage of such students and their friends and supportive family. But along with a stronger gay rights movement come new Religious Right strategies to counter every advance.
Over the years, the Religious Right's anti-gay activity in schools has taken many forms — from challenging gay-themed books to barring all mention of sexual orientation to challenging the very right of lesbians and gays to be teachers. While it may not be as easy to stoke anti-gay bias or to threaten the jobs of gay teachers as it once was, the Right is nothing if not inventive. As with sexuality education and creationism, anti-gay groups have created their own "alternative" to objective and fair treatment of the issue.
Using 'Ex-Gay' Spokespeople
At the center of these efforts are the so-called "ex-gay ministries." Like the creationists who now embrace "intelligent design," anti-gay groups push "reparative therapy" and cast themselves as brave dissenters from a politically correct establishment. However, the real goal is the same as ever — rolling back civil rights protections for lesbians and gays.
Bennett, a self-proclaimed "ex-gay" quoted above, was just one of the anti-gay speakers at a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Culture and Family Institute of Concerned Women for America in July 2002. The speakers demonized gay-affirming policies of the National Education Association, Gay, Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) and even the U.S. Department of Education. Karen Holgate from Capitol Resource Institute, a California-based group affiliated with Focus on the Family, said, "Homosexual activists have hijacked our schools," and others blasted tolerance and diversity training as a homosexual "Trojan Horse" that undermines students' traditional beliefs. Other speakers included Linda Harvey from the Ohio-based Mission: America and abstinence proponent Dr. John Diggs, also an advisory board member of the Family Research Council.
Another national campaign to push "reparative therapy" in public schools was conducted by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). In an effort to rebuke the affirming message of GLSEN and supportive psychiatric groups, NARTH mailed its "Homosexual Advocacy Groups & Your School" brochure to over 15,000 school districts. Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, president of NARTH, claimed that the brochure "seeks to correct the misinformation that is being promoted by these homosexual advocacy groups that have an incredible influence on the public education system."
Fighting Anti-discrimination Measures
As school officials, parents and students have acted to provide safe and affirming atmospheres for gay youth in our public schools, Religious Right groups have continued to challenge progress at every opportunity. The California-based Pacific Justice Institute, for example, has filed numerous lawsuits against school districts in that state over gay-friendly policies.
The Bay County, Florida, school board unanimously "denounced homosexuality" despite the fact that no specific issue was before the board. One board member called homosexuality "a sin" and another said "We are morally, ethically and Christian based. We stand tall, we stand firm and we will not support any homosexual [issues]." According to news reports, the board action was the result of parents motivated by publicity about National Education Association guidelines on gay and lesbian issues. The local spokesperson for the teacher's association said, "We're still not sure what [the parents] are after. It seems to me that they think there is some hidden gay agenda that's going to corrupt America. We don't have a position because we don't know what the issue is."
The Maryland state board of education and Fairfax County, Virginia, school district both faced right-wing challenges when they addressed anti-discrimination issues covering sexual orientation. The Culture and Family Institute, TakeBackMaryland.org, and Virginia Family Foundation all claimed that protecting gay youth from harassment and discrimination would undermine traditional values and free speech rights. Peter LaBarbera has resurrected his anti-gay Americans For Truth group (formerly Americans for Truth About Homosexuality) to alert Fairfax County residents to a proposed nondiscrimination policy and hold a "pro-family rally featuring former homosexuals" outside the school board meeting. Neither the Maryland nor Fairfax County programs have been implemented and both await further review.
Focus on the Family, the West Virginia Family Foundation, and Mission: America have lined up to criticize the West Virginia Attorney General's office and participating public schools over a program to reduce bias-motivated harassment and violence. Similar "Dignity for All Students" legislation failed to pass in the Florida and New York general assemblies.
By all accounts, the Religious Right appears to be focusing its energy on policy issues like school vouchers, anti-gay harassment policies, and the minutiae of textbook approval. But there is still plenty of organized activity to ban books in public school classrooms, and some Religious Right groups remain committed as ever to fanning the flames of censorship.
During the last school year, right-wing groups sought to remove books from the Harry Potter series from schools across the nation by alleging that they are luring students into witchcraft and the occult. On a December 2001 700 Club, host Pat Robertson followed up an interview with an anti-Harry Potter activist by warning that God will forsake nations that tolerate witchcraft. Robertson advised his audience that the Bible said that, "there's certain things that he says that is going to cause the Lord, or the land, to vomit you out. At the head of the list is witchcraft….Now we're welcoming this and teaching our children. And what we're doing is asking for the wrath of God to come on this country….And if there's ever a time we need God's blessing it's now. We don't need to be bringing in heathen, pagan practices to the United States of America."
Several national religious right organizations, like Concerned Women for America, the Traditional Values Coalition, the American Family Association, and Focus on the Family, have warned their supporters against the dangers of the Harry Potter books. And across the country, parents and religious groups worked to try to get Harry Potter books removed from local schools.
In York, Pennsylvania, a parent, along with a local pastor and elementary school teacher, urged the Eastern York School District to ban the Potter series from district schools. The parent, Deb DiEugenio, complained that the Potter books were "against my daughter's constitution, it's evil, it's witchcraft. I'm not paying taxes to teach my child witchcraft." Tony Leanza, who is a pastor at the New Wine Christian Center as well as a local elementary school teacher, attempted to argue that "Wicca is a religion" and thus the Potter books should be banned because they violate the separation of church and state. The school board eventually voted 7-2 to allow teachers to continue to use the Potter series, provided that students first received a parent's permission.
In July 2002, parents in Cromwell, Connecticut sought to have the Potter books, along with Newbery award-winning book The Witch of Blackbird Pond, removed from a local middle school because they supposedly expose children to spells and witchcraft and provide a negative portrayal of Christianity. Dr. J Michael Bates, a pastor in the Emmanuel Baptist Church, urged taxpayers to protest such books, even if they do not have children in the school system. "The public school needs to know that there are people out there who resent this stuff," Bates said. The objectors plan to petition the school board at an upcoming meeting.
These sorts of attacks on the Potter series were not isolated incidents. Right-wing groups in cities around the country attacked the series. In Florida, Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio, Maine and California, individuals and organizations attempted to keep Harry Potter out of the reach of children.
Perhaps the most intense attack on the Potter books came from the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where an actual book burning was held on Dec. 30, 2001. Hundreds turned out to join Pastor Jack Brock's "holy bonfire," where they smashed CDs, videos and records with a baseball bat and burned magazines and books, including the Harry Potter books, which Brock called "a masterpiece of satanic deception."
In Fall 2001, a high school production of "Dark of the Moon" was cancelled because of complaints over the play's subject matter and sexual content. The play was mere weeks from it first performance at Knappa High School in Oregon when some parents and community members raised objections to the play's portrayal of Christians, as well as to a scene that implied rape and the cremation of a stillborn baby. The play was produced on Broadway eight years before Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" explored similar themes of intolerance and religion. Mark Acuna, pastor of the Knappa Assembly of God, urged that all future plays have content appropriate for a family audience and "not violate the dignity of race or religion."
In April 2002, the Horry County Board of Education voted to remove The Drowning of Stephan Jones from the shelves of all eight school libraries in the South Carolina county. The vote came as a result of a complaint by Eugene Carroll Craig, a local barber and born-again Christian.
The book, about a gay man who is harassed and killed by a group of Arkansas teens, initially came to the school board's attention after Craig made 1200 photocopies of passages of the book and passed them out at local businesses on Easter Sunday. Claiming that the book promoted the homosexual agenda, Craig sought to have it removed from district schools. He argued that the book had an "anti-Christian, anti-social agenda" but a twelve-member panel of parents, teachers, librarians and principals voted to keep the book. Not all panel members agreed, with Reverend Ricky Donaldson claiming that he couldn't get past the first chapter of the book because it "offended my Christian beliefs."
Craig appealed this decision to the school board which then determined, by a vote of 7-3, that the book, was "educationally unsuitable and [contained] unacceptable language." It was therefore banned from all Horry County School libraries.
An organization was formed in late 2001 in Fairfax, Virginia with the purpose of challenging the use of "bad books" within the Fairfax County school system. Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS) has created a web site that now lists hundreds of books the organization considers controversial and offers concerned parents advice and support. The list includes major works by acclaimed authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Styron, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier, to name a few.
Parents Against Bad Books in Schools was started shortly after a student brought home a copy of Druids, by Morgan Llywelyn. PABBIS sought to remove this book because of what it claimed was "graphic descriptions of sex" and "sex magic." The group also sought the removal of Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire and Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. The Fairfax County School Board removed Druids from middle school shelves and limited access to The Pillars of the Earth to grades 10 through 12. PABBIS has routinely complained about the board and accused board members of "embracing all religions...except for the Christian Faith." Furthermore, PABBIS alleges that "many of these books have anti-Christian themes and are blasphemous of Jesus the Lord."
PABBIS assures parents who have found their child with "a book with vivid descriptions of sex, violence, vulgar language or something else objectionable" and wondered "how dare the school allow this junk," that they "have every right to feel angry and upset" because "[the schools] are corrupting your child." Instead of allowing the school system to force "their values on your child everyday," PABBIS urges parents to challenge the use of the book and offers advice on how to change the system. PABBIS also recommends that parents "monitor what your child reads like a paranoid hawk" or switch their children to a private school.
This report only provides a glimpse of the many Religious Right attempts to censor curricula or insert sectarian religion into public schools over the 2001-02 school year. Many other groups do extensive work on the issues explored in this report, including the American Library Association (ALA), the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
While most Americans see the schools as places where children should learn how to think critically and be given the tools to help them become productive and engaged members of the American community, the Religious Right believes that the public schools should promote the particular religious views of the movement's leaders and avoid topics and ideas that might threaten those views.
In many instances, the tactics of Religious Right groups are unchanged from previous years. Objections to popular and acclaimed books for children, like the Harry Potter series, are not so different from the complaints of a decade ago. Similarly, the same efforts that Religious Right activists have long been known for — mandating sectarian religious instruction and creationism for example — still persist today. But the landscape has changed in many ways, often reflecting a larger Religious Right victory.
In past reports, PFAWF has documented countless attempts to censor comprehensive sex education in public schools. Those efforts have largely been replaced by the quiet dominance of abstinence-only sex education curricula. In this case, the Religious Right may have lost local battles along the way, but they have won federal funding. In the case of science education and anti-gay activity, the Right is still drawing its battle plans. But this much is clear — the Religious Right remains more focused on public schools than ever.
We are mindful, of course, that even without the Right's destructive efforts, our schools face steep challenges. Some public schools, especially in our urban areas, aren't safe and aren't working. As a society, we have allowed devastating inequities in our public education system to go unchallenged and we are paying the price for that apathy, both in failing our children and in giving ammunition to public education's enemies. People For the American Way Foundation remains committed to improving public education through sound policies that serve the public interest.
This is a critical moment for public education in America. A growing public commitment to investing in our schools is making education a top priority. The Religious Right's efforts — whether to divert money from public schools through vouchers, undermine the quality of science education, or gut meaningful sexuality education — all run counter to the larger goal of strengthening public schools. The outcome of these struggles at the local and national levels will be crucial to the future of education in America.