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Florida's Bible battle.

In Lee County, Religious Right School Board Members Have Provoked A Bad Fight Over The Good Book

During his campaign for a seat on the Lee County, Fla., School Board in 1996, Lanny Moore St. trudged around the community with a large placard he would unveil at public meetings.

It was a graph designed to show that since the U.S. Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools unconstitutional in 1962 and '63, high school student scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) had plummeted.

"My chart shows everything went south in 1963," Moore told The Miami Herald.

Moore's exasperated critics tried to point out the flaw in his reasoning. His opponent, Connie Holzinger, would tell audiences that the drop in SAT scores came about because in the early '60s larger numbers of students from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds began taking the SAT and going to college, pulling scores down. But Moore remained convinced his answer was correct.

Elected to the five-member board that fall, Moore has since joined forces with two allies to rectify what they see as the high court's mistake. Their answer is to implement a new elective in the county's high schools: a "Bible as history" class that many Lee County critics say is little more than a cover for fundamentalist Christian indoctrination.

The board's proposal has divided Lee County for nearly two years, leading to lengthy school board meetings punctuated by heated arguments and emotional discourse. In the process, the growing Gulf Coast county, whose largest city is Ft. Myers, has become the latest example of the unpleasant fallout that follows a Religious Right takeover of a public school board.

Moore, a wealthy lumber dealer, is a member of the Christian Coalition, TV preacher Pat Robertson's political group. His two allies on the board, former school principal Douglas Santini and businessman Bill Gross, are not Coalition members but remain sympathetic to the organization's goals. The three-man bloc seems determined to ignore public sentiment and foist a narrow sectarian agenda onto Lee County schoolchildren.

"These three men on the board do not listen to the community at all," said Holzinger. "It's offensive how they ignore people at meetings. They know what they are going to do, and they do it. They are only listening to a narrow group in the community, and most of the people they are listening to have no children in the public schools."

The Lee County drama sounds familiar to watchers of the Religious Right. In recent years the Christian Coalition and allied Religious Right groups have succeeded in gaining majorities on a handful of school boards around the country. Once seated, the Religious Right operatives waste no time attempting to implement a far-right, fundamentalist agenda - be it textbook censorship, the introduction of creationism in science classes or attacks on sex education. Inevitably, chaos and community backlash have ensued.

In most of those communities, such as Vista, Calif., Merrimack, N.H. and Lake County, Fla., voters have ousted the Religious Right board members at the first opportunity. Lee County will not have that chance until elections this fall, when Gross and Santini must stand for reelection. (Florida law does not permit recall of school board members.)

Activists in Lee County have already formed two political action committees to unseat Gross and Santini. The first group, Citizens for Quality Education (CQE), is headed by Jill Dillon of Sanibel Island and consists mostly of parents and concerned citizens. CQE began with five members in the winter of 1996 and now has more than 250 supporters.

Dillon told Church & State she got concerned when it became obvious that the board wanted a Bible class geared toward indoctrination.

"They were determined to institute a course that would proselytize and indoctrinate," she said. "It is essentially a Protestant fundamentalist version of the Bible. My objection is to the proselytization. Their intentions are not secular by any means."

The second PAC, the Business Persons United Political Action Committee, may be even more formidable because it consists of community business leaders who argue that good public schools are vital to the county's economic well being and who consider the fracas over the Bible course an unwelcome distraction. The business PAC is headed by a retired Army general, James Dozier. Ironically, Dozier backed Moore in 1996 after Moore told him he would not pursue a religious agenda on the board, but Dozier dropped his support in the wake of the Bible class controversy.

"We fluffed it," Dozier told The Miami Herald. "Now the ball is in our court to set it right."

Anyone looking for the cause of Lee County's turmoil need go no further than the offices of the local Christian Coalition chapter. Controversy over the Bible class actually pre-dates Moore's tenure on the board. It all started when Beverly Kehn, a local Christian Coalition member, proposed the class two years ago. Kehn recommended the district adopt a course published by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a Religious Right group based in Greensboro, N.C.

Board members seemed interested and voted to form a 15-member committee to study the matter. But there were problems from the start. The committee was stacked with Religious Right sympathizers and became riven with dissention. A minority faction soon realized what was afoot: The majority was not interested in a curriculum that would offer truly objective instruction; rather, they wanted something reflecting a Christian fundamentalist bias.

Lawyers for the school district were alarmed over the committee's first effort, saying it was too heavy on religion and too light on history. Board attorney Keith Martin recommended axing references to Adam and Eve, the creation stories of Genesis and the resurrection of Jesus. Martin also wanted to remove selected references to sin and morality and drop an exercise that had students identify certain passages of the Bible.

"That sounds an awful lot like Sunday school," he told local news media.

But the committee majority refused to accept the recommended changes. Last September the committee dissolved itself in protest but not before the majority voted to endorse the North Carolina curriculum. (The committee recommended that the curriculum be adopted in its entirety for the portion of the course dealing with the New Testament but accepted some editing of the portion focusing on the Old Testament.)

Members of the committee's minority faction were appalled. Mark Ehman, a retired university professor, told Church & State that the curriculum put forth by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools is not suitable for public institutions.

Ehman should know. He taught courses in comparative religion for 23 years at Springfield College in Massachusetts and continues teaching at community colleges in and around Fort Myers today. Asked to assess the National Council's curriculum he replied, "It is a Sunday School curriculum."

Continued Ehman, "Basically the curriculum as it now stands...is not historically based. It doesn't have sufficient external background and points of verification or checking to stand as a history course. That's been the [committee] minority's objection all along."

Ehman said the Bible and the information it contains about ancient societies can be incorporated into history classes, or, alternatively, a course on comparative religion could be offered. But, he added, "This certainly isn't the course, in my view."

Ehman isn't the only critic of the National Council's curriculum. Dr. Wayne Robinson, pastor of the Fort Myers Unitarian Universalist Church, also reviewed the curriculum. He found it appropriate for Sunday schools only.

"I had expected it to be at least somewhat sophisticated," Robinson told Church & State, "but it's very simplistic. ...They assume that biblical material is historical material when it is not."

Advocates of church-state separation note that the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, headed by Elizabeth Ridenour, has ties to assorted Religious Right groups. The Council's board of directors and advisory panel are studded with far-right activists, including at least two Christian Reconstructionists - Howard Phillips and Rus Walton. (Christian Reconstructionists advocate turning America into a theocracy with all civil law based on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.) Television evangelist D. James Kennedy, an ardent critic of church-state separation, is also an enthusiastic backer of the National Council and has donated hefty sums to the group. (See "Bible Boosters," page 7.)

A glance at the curriculum shows why many Lee County parents are concerned. One activity recommends that students "research the biblical concept of angels." The Miami Herald reported that one version of the curriculum contains an exercise proposing that students calculate the size of Noah's ark and figure out how all of the animals could fit on board. A third exercise calls on students to assume the role of a "chronicler" and retell the story of David and Goliath, "taking into consideration reasons why Saul became jealous of David." Another section recommends screening portions of the films "Ben Hur" and "The Ten Commandments."

The Lee County board has repeatedly been advised that the Bible class raises church-state concerns. On Sept. 25, Melanie Gurley Keeney, a St. Louis attorney hired by the board to advise them on the matter, recommended against adopting the North Carolina curriculum.

Although the course outline says that the approach should be objective, critics note that many of its backers claim the instruction will affect the spiritual and moral lives of students. Speaking last August, Moore stated, "I would submit many young people in our [schools] don't know who our creator is.... Why go through that formality of swearing before God when our kids don't know who a God is? I agree religion ought to be taught in our home, but I believe the Christian Bible is the Bible. The Bible is history, and it has a role in the formation of our country."

Moore also told the Fort Myers News-Press, "Schools virtually raise a lot of kids now. There may have been a generation or two that hasn't been churched. They need it."

Although Ridenour has tried to distance herself from this type of rhetoric, her own literature is full of references to the alleged decline of American society and public schools, and she frequently asserts that implementation of her group's Bible course can somehow correct these perceived problems - a curious goal for an allegedly "objective" course.

Moore goes much farther. In an Oct. 22 interview with NBC's "Nightly News," he insisted that the Old Testament account of Jonah being swallowed by a whale and other biblical stories are true and should be taught as fact.

Moore's supporters frequently echo his views. At the Oct. 21 meeting where the North Carolina curriculum was given final approval, Fort Myers resident Beverly Kidder told the board,"I tremble before an Almighty God when I see how we have turned our backs on Him." Kidder insisted that the Bible "should be the principal text in our schools."

But other Lee County residents took a different view. "Frivolous spending of money on a course that belongs in a religious institution, not in the public schools, bothers me a lot," said Mike Jenkins of Cape Coral. Jenkins blasted the board for risking taxpayer funds by approving a class that could spark a lawsuit.

That's exactly what happened Dec. 9 when a group of parents and taxpayers filed suit against the Lee County School Board in federal court. Relying on a Miami law firm, the parents have asked the court in their Gibson v. Lee County School Board lawsuit to block implementation of the class.

The legal action is being sponsored by the Florida affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Anti-Defamation League will be coordinating the friend-of-the-court briefs. All four organizations have been working with concerned local citizens for the past several months.

Last year Americans United tried to resolve the Lee County conflict without litigation. In July, with the controversy raging full throttle, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent a letter to Santini, the board chairman, urging him to drop the Bible course.

"Teaching public school students that the Bible is an accurate representation of world history is not within the law," Lynn wrote. "Frankly, it appears that these classes could become little more than an opportunity to teach a specific religious doctrine as scholarly fact. Accordingly, I join many of your neighbors in sincere concerns about the apparent lack of objectivity in the courses being mandated by the school board."

The Religious Right majority on the Lee board isn't worried about the costs of a lawsuit. On Nov. 25 the board, by the usual 3-2 split, voted to accept free legal help from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Founded by TV preacher Robertson in 1990, the ACLJ functions as the Religious Right's most active legal arm. The group insists that the National Council's curriculum is appropriate for public school use, but now that the suit has arrived, the ACLJ is not fully on board. Negotiations with the Lee County Board have been stymied over a disagreement about how to deal with the media. The ACLJ insists that school district employees and board members agree to talk to reporters only after clearing it with the Robertson legal group. Board members have balked at the request.

Can the Lee County parents prevail in court? Legal experts note that the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled directly on the issue of Bible curriculum in public schools. But lower federal courts have looked at the issue, giving some indication of what is permissible and what is not.

In a string of cases from 1979 and 1980, a federal court in Tennessee examined a Bible course offered in Chattanooga and Hamilton County public schools, rejecting some lessons as unconstitutional but permitting others. The court, in the Wiley v. Franklin decisions, struck down lessons on the resurrection of Jesus and certain Old Testament stories for treating accounts of divine miracles as factual events. Other lessons taking a more secular approach were upheld.

In 1981, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Bible as literature class in Conecuh County, Ala., public schools, holding that the textbook reflected a fundamentalist Christian interpretation of the Bible (Hall v. Board of School Commissioners). Complicating the matter was the fact that a local Baptist minister taught the course and that he stressed rote memorization of Bible passages.

Most recently, a federal court in Mississippi struck down a "Biblical History of the Middle East" course in Pontotoc County in 1996, holding that "the aim of the instruction has been overtly religious in nature" (Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District). The class had been run by outside teachers hired by a local "Bible Committee" composed of Protestant clergy. There have been a handful of other cases, but they tend to be several decades old.

As the Lee County controversy continues, many board opponents wonder what will happen next. They note that the board seems determined to reshape Lee's public schools in the Christian Coalition's image and will run over anyone who stands in the way.

Last year the board engineered the ouster of Superintendent Bobbie D'Alessandro, whom Santini had accused of dragging her feet on implementing the Bible course. Despite her popularity and a last-minute outpouring of support, D'Alessandro was pressured until she accepted a contract buyout. Former board attorney Steven Butler also resigned, after pointing out that the proposed Bible curriculum "plainly contravenes the Constitution."

The board is already moving on other Religious Right fronts. It has taken steps to implement "abstinence only" sex education in the schools, and there are signs that a creationism battle is brewing. Moore, speaking last August at MacGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, a focal point for Christian Coalition political activity, remarked, "If you believe you descended from the apes or slime, that affects you...For the first 150 years, creation was taught, and we didn't have the problems that we have today. It matters if you believe man is created in God's image or created from slime."

All of this concerns Holzinger, who despite her loss to Moore continues to monitor the situation. "Once they get this Bible course going, creationism I think is going to be the next thing," she says.

Moore has also taken aim at a popular school program that helps young people who do not go on to college find jobs. Such "school-to-work" programs are increasingly becoming targets for the most extreme and paranoid segments of the Religious Right, which argues that they somehow run counter to the capitalist system. Moore has said that the Lee County school-to-work project is "positioning our country for socialism."

Holzinger and CQE's Dillon note that during the election, Moore usually kept his ties to Religious Right groups under wraps. Dillon said Moore was asked several times if he was part of the Christian Coalition, and he usually dodged the question. However, on at least one occasion, according to Dillon, Moore did admit to being a Coalition member but insisted that the group "is just like the Rotary Club."

Moore won, Holzinger says, by mobilizing members of MacGregor Baptist Church and outspending her. According to his final financial disclosure statement, Moore spent $67,195 on the race. Holzinger spent under $14,000, the normal range for school board candidates in the county.

"Moore overwhelmed everyone with his money," Holzinger said. "His signs were everywhere, on every corner. A lot of people vote on name recognition, and they had no idea what they were voting for. Many people have told me since the election, 'I had no idea.'"

Nevertheless, the race was close. In an county where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a nearly 2-1 margin, Holzinger, running as a Democrat, received 75,181 votes to Moore's 78,600.

Where does all of this leave Lee County? For the time being, anti-Christian Coalition activists realize the board majority has the power to have its way. They say they are hoping to bring enough community pressure to bear to eventually change the situation.

Robinson, the Unitarian Universalist minister, says the board has its priorities confused. Noting that only 125 of 13,500 Lee County high school students have expressed an interest in taking the Bible course, he said, "It's catastrophic, This is a school system that does not have enough textbooks. Yet they have spent $500 per student for this elective. It has caused us to spend hours at school board meetings over something that has no business being there instead of figuring out how to improve the classroom situation."

Holzinger cautions people in other parts of the county to consider events under way in Lee County as a warning. "I would tell people to start paying attention to school board races because school boards are very attractive to the Christian Coalition and the Religious Right," she said.

Continued Holzinger, "There may be people reading this article who think everything is OK. They may not realize that there are one or two people on the local school board who are inclined toward this Religious Right agenda. All they need is one or two more, and they can start doing a lot of damage. And once they start, there's nothing you can do until the next election."

RELATED ARTICLE: BIBLE BOOSTERS

Greensboro, N.C., Bible-In-Schools Group Has Close Ties To Religious Right

Greensboro, N.C., Bible-In-Schools Group Has Close Ties To Religious Right Greensboro, N.C., resident Elizabeth Ridenour founded the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools in 1993 because she was concerned that the separation of church and state, as applied to public schools, had gone too far.

"The phrase 'separation of church and state' has been so misused," Ridenour told the Charlotte, N.C., Observer in 1994. "They took the Bible out back in '63, and everything's gone downhill since then."

To remedy the situation, Ridenour's group began promoting a high-school level curriculum designed to teach the Bible as history. The National Council, which is non-profit - though Ridenour refused to provide its budget - markets the curriculum and helps parents get it adopted by local school districts. Today, Ridenour says, the curriculum is taught in 61 public school districts in 22 states, though in a recent interview with Church & State she declined to provide a list.

"The main thing we do is teach people about the legality of the curriculum and how to get it in the schools," she said. Ridenour insists that the course is being used around the country, and that it has never sparked a lawsuit.

Ridenour said the curriculum is an updated version of one developed more than 40 years ago by teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., school district. "We deleted some things and polished it up in light of Supreme Court rulings," said Ridenour, a former real estate agent with no legal or educational credentials. She speculated that most of the teachers who wrote it are now deceased.

But some advocates of separation of church and state are not convinced that the National Council's curriculum is appropriate for use in public schools. Many are concerned because the National Council's board of directors and advisory board are studded with Religious Right figures and because the group has close ties to TV preacher D. James Kennedy, a strident critic of church-state separation. (Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries donated $20,000 to the National Council in the fall of 1995 and another $15,000 in 1997.)

At least two Christian Reconstructionists sit on the National Council's oversight boards - Howard Phillips and Rus Walton. Reconstructionism, the most extreme manifestation of the Religious Right, advocates theocracy with a government based on a literal reading of the Bible, including the harsh legal code of the Old Testament. Under the Reconstructionist model, as many as 18 offenses, including blasphemy, adultery and persistent juvenile delinquency, would merit the death penalty.

Ridenour acknowledges that the presence of these figures on the National Council's board has led some to criticize the organization's motives. "They' re saying that because of the people on the advisory board," she told Church & State. "However, we have a rabbi on our advisory board, an Orthodox.

"The Bible is taught in its entirety," she continued. "The Bible was written by Jews, so how can they say it's Protestant? Some people just don't want God in the schools even if it's legal."

But Ridenour takes a more polemical approach when addressing Religious Right audiences. In a Sept. 14, 1995, interview on Kennedy's "Truths That Transform" radio program, she said, "[W]e're just trying to expose the kids to the biblical Christian worldview, which is actually the only worldview not being taught in high schools now."

Ridenour charged that public schools already teach other worldviews. "Some of them," she said, "are mandatory - the secular humanist worldview, Marxist-Leninism, New Age worldview. That material's already there...."

In a cover letter sent with information about the National Council, Ridenour writes, "The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture; to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children. Please help us to restore our religious and civil liberties in this nation."

Asked how an objective course on the Bible could affect students' moral lives, Ridenour replied, "The moral crisis is that the kids have known there has been a gap in their education. Most of the founding documents are based on the Bible - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the school system. The kids don't know any of that history."

Ridenour relies on a video produced by David Barton, a notorious Religious Right propagandist, to make the case for Bible classes in public schools. She recommends that parents trying to persuade school boards to adopt the course arrange to show them Barton's "Foundations of American Government" video, which gives a Religious Right perspective on the role of religion in American history.

Barton's materials, however, are full of errors and distortions and are designed to promote his view that the United States was founded to be a "Christian nation" with a decidedly fundamentalist bent. (For information on the errors in Barton's materials, see "Sects, Lies and Videotape," April 1993 Church & State and "Consumer Alert!" July-August 1996 Church & State.)

Nevertheless, Ridenour defends Barton. "He just explains to people the truth about the separation of church and state, what's legal and what not to do," she said. "A lot of people don't know that history. I sure didn't when I started this."

Ridenour insisted that the National Council's curriculum has been examined and approved by legal experts. But most of those "experts" are affiliated with Religious Right groups. Jay Sekulow of TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, for example, wrote a three-page letter in July of 1994 defending the constitutionality of Bible classes in public schools. Sekulow's letter, however, addresses the generic topic of using the Bible for academic instruction in public schools and does not directly address Ridenour's specific curriculum.

Asked if anyone outside of the Religious Right has examined the curriculum, Ridenour cited Deborah Ross, director of the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. But when contacted by Church & State, Ross said she had never given the National Council's curriculum her blessing. Ross explained that Ridenour gave her a 10-page summary of the curriculum and that Ross saw nothing in the summary that was on its face unconstitutional.

"But I have not seen the actual curriculum that is going to be taught in schools," Ross said. "What I have said consistently is that based on those 10 pages, I can't say that [the curriculum] is unconstitutional."

Ross added that the ACLU of North Carolina is more interested in how the curriculum is used in the classroom than what it says. "The key is what is actually being done in the schools," she said. "I do not know from this summary what is actually being done in the schools - the actual lessons plans, the tests and things like that. Any Bible curriculum could be taught in an unconstitutional way or a constitutional way."

Several public school districts in North Carolina are using the National Council's curriculum. Last November the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press sent a reporter to North Carolina to look at how the classes have been incorporated in one school district there.

Ridenour insists that the curriculum is being used intact around the country, but that may not be the case. The Florida reporter, Betty Parker, wrote that officials in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District, where six of eight high schools offer Bible classes as an elective, "say the broad course outline by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools is a framework that's constantly adapted by teachers."

One teacher in the district, Angell Caudill, told the paper, "With that curriculum, you look at it, and what you think is good, you do, and you can add to it, too. I don't try to skip anything or hide anything. But on something like the Creation, I look at all schools of thought. I try to give out as much information as I can about all the theories so students know what's out there."

Caudill, who underwent 75 hours of instruction before offering the course, said she is careful never to discuss her own religious beliefs and works to keep the classes free of sectarian bias.

But clearly the curriculum is open to abuse. In Reidsville, N.C., some teachers used the same curriculum and took the opposite approach. Three years ago the Greensboro News & Record reported that one teacher there, Georgie Kuster, said, "I feel the Bible is God's word to us and can change people's life." Another teacher, Carolyn Ray, remarked, "When we took prayer and the Bible out of the schools, that's when our morals went down. God says that if you honor me, I will honor you. I don't believe we are honoring Him by having Him out of the schools."

In Winston-Salem, students were asked what they had learned in the class. One girl replied, "There's a lot of diversity in the class, and people have a lot of different opinions. This class doesn't change anybody's views. We just learn history." But in Reidsville a student said, "I've learned how Christ died on the cross for our sins. I also learned about the Ten Commandments. The class lets you learn about the laws of God, about what He thinks people should do."

Given the Christian Coalition's long-standing opposition to church-state separation and advocacy of religious worship in public schools, Lee County, Fla., residents could be forgiven for worrying that the Reidsville approach may be imposed on their community.

"The National Council has ties to extreme Religious Right groups, and the potential for this curriculum to be abused has been documented," observed Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The Bible is not a history book and should not be taught as one."

Concluded Lynn, "There is a right way and a wrong way to teach about religion in public schools. I'm concerned that the National Council's curriculum is an example of the latter."

- RB
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Title Annotation:includes related article on the National Council on Bible Curriculum; controversies concerning a proposal for a Bible class elective
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:4868
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