House Of Representatives Rocked By Flap Over
Appointing New Chaplain
The leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is defending itself against charges of religious bigotry in the wake of an ugly flap over appointing a new chaplain.
An 18-member House committee divided equally between Republicans and Democrats met for months last year to find a replacement for retiring chaplain James D. Ford. The committee considered 40 applicants and recommended three finalists. The leading contender, according to several committee members, was the Rev. Timothy J. O'Brien, a Roman Catholic priest.
But in late November House leaders announced that the job was being given to the Rev. Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian. The New York Times reported that Wright was the choice of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who, along with Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), were given the task of making the final selection.
A Catholic chaplain served in the House briefly prior to the Civil War, but in modern times the job has always been held by a Protestant minister. Some Catholic House members said the rejection of O'Brien was due to anti-Catholicism. "As a member of the House and a member of the committee and as a Catholic, I'm offended and resentful," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).
Eshoo told The Washington Post, "After all is said and done, Speaker Hastert and the majority leader squandered a very rare and unique opportunity to highlight, to showcase, bipartisanship. I don't think the entire thing is an anti-Catholic bias. Do I think that's part of it? I do."
O'Brien told the Associated Press, "I am convinced that if were a mainline Protestant minister and not a Catholic priest, I would be the candidate."
O'Brien, who is a professor of political science at the Marquette University Center for Government, told the AP, "I just kind of felt that I was going to have some trouble with the evangelical right because they...likely had a different candidate." He asserted that during one interview, Rep. Richard Shimkus (R-Ill.) noted that the other chaplain candidates had families and wanted to know if O'Brien was "of good moral character." (A spokeswoman in Shimkus' office denied the charge.)
The priest also told The Times that during his second interview he ran into an "evangelical Protestant line of questioning" from Republicans. One member asked him to name three Bible passages by which he lives his life and another wondered if his clerical collar would be divisive.
Most shocking of all, O'Brien said, was a comment from Armey, who "indicated that he came from North Dakota originally and was raised in a very anti-Catholic environment....I thought it was kind of a strange comment to make."
Pete Jeffries, a Hastert spokesman, insisted that anti-Catholic animus played no role in the choice. Jeffries told The Times that Hastert simply believed Wright "would jell best with the members and their families."
Wright must be formally approved by a House vote this month. Americans United weighed in on the controversy Dec. 6 with a letter to Hastert advising the speaker to abolish the position of House chaplain altogether. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said religious wrangling in the House is almost inevitable "when a government post is devoted solely to religious matters."
Wrote Lynn, "To select a clergyman from one tradition (and reject all those from other traditions) is virtually certain to unleash charges of favoritism. The answer is not to try to improve the selection process, but to abolish the post of House chaplain. Such a move would be in keeping with the church-state separation principle provided in our Constitution."
Lynn noted that James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, strongly opposed congressional chaplains. Writing in his "Detached Memoranda" after he left political life, Madison called taxpayer-supported chaplains a "palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles."
Lynn also appealed for abolishing the office on financial grounds, noting that the chaplain's office has an annual budget of $132,000, even though few House members actually attend the opening prayers. (The Senate chaplain's office has a $277,000 budget allocation.)
Concluded Lynn, "When the House resumes business in January, I urge you not to reopen the ugly and divisive battle over which man to select for the chaplain's post. Instead, I urge you to give House members the opportunity to discontinue the chaplaincy entirely."
Louisiana Prayer Law Faces Court Test
Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed suit last month in federal court, charging that the state's school prayer law is unconstitutional. The suit also challenges specific school-sponsored religious practices at West Monroe High School in Ouachita Parish.
"Public schools are not Sunday schools," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Government officials have no business interfering in the private religious lives of students."
Joe Cook, director of the ACLU of Louisiana, agreed. "No child should be made to feel like an outsider or a second-class citizen in a public school because of his or her religious or philosophical beliefs," Cook said. "Religious instruction belongs in homes and churches, not in a classroom where young people of many faiths gather."
At issue is an amended school prayer law that was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of the Louisiana legislature last June and signed by Gov. Mike Foster on July 2. The measure altered an existing statute authorizing teachers and students to call for a moment of "silent prayer or meditation" in public schools every morning by striking the word "silent."
Americans United and the ACLU contend that the legislators' intention was to permit coercive, vocal prayer and religious worship in public schools. They note that the measure's legislative sponsor, Rep. Cynthia Willard, told the House Education Committee last May that she wanted to allow for "verbal prayer" in public schools.
In addition, the lawsuit challenges activities at West Monroe High School, where plaintiffs assert Christian prayers are regularly broadcast over the loudspeaker. Two students who have refused to participate have been harassed and called "Satanists" and "devil worshippers" by fellow classmates. Plaintiffs in the Doe v. Ouachita Parish School Board case have elected to remain anonymous, fearing further community reprisals.
The complaint asserts that Principal Ernest Reed of West Monroe High School has permitted a student to read a Christian prayer over the school's public address system every morning. Last November Americans United attorneys sent school officials a letter urging them to terminate the practices but received no reply.
'Charitable Choice' Drive By Bush, Gore Is
Misguided, Clergy Say
A group of moderate religious leaders in Texas has criticized Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush for pushing "charitable choice" plans that would give taxpayer money to "faith-based" groups.
The Texas Faith Network, a collection of 400 religious leaders who oppose the Religious Right, said the Gore and Bush proposals threaten to undermine the separation of church and state.
"The concern that the Founding Fathers had about the separation of church and state was what the church might do to the state," the Rev. Charles Moore, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Austin, told the Associated Press. "Charitable choice opens the door more than anything that I have seen in my lifetime to the church being able to take over the state and turn this nation into a theocracy."
Bush has proposed spending $8 billion annually to encourage "faith-based" groups to work on social issues. Gore has also called for giving tax money to religious groups through "charitable choice" schemes, provided they do not use it to proselytize.
The Texas religious leaders said the proposals are misguided. "Under charitable choice, a hungry person may find it necessary to submit to partisan prayer," said the Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin. "Under charitable choice, a sick person may have to seek health care from a religion which believes in faith healing."
Rigby charged that charitable choice is the "latest in a long line of euphemisms meant to disguise the fact that we are dismantling the social safety net that was once called welfare."
Meanwhile, a new study indicates that most churches are unprepared to administer wide-ranging social service programs on the scale Gore and Bush envision. The study, undertaken by the Alban Institute, a Maryland-based research organization, found that most of America's 300,000 houses of worship are small and function mainly as centers for spiritual activity, not social services.
"Most congregations are small and don't have the resources," researcher Mark Chaves, who led the study, told The Washington Times. "The number of churches that work with long-term dependence problems are very few."
The Alban study found that about a third of U.S. churches offer food programs and 20 percent offer shelter for the homeless. But very few offer other types of social services for the needy. Only 3 percent offer tutoring, 2 percent work with substance abusers and 1 percent have programs to help the jobless.
Chaves found that only 10 percent of American houses of worship have staff members who devote 25 percent or more of their time to social services. Most church social work, he found, is done by volunteers who often work alongside other community groups.
Chaves' study indicated that currently only about 1 percent of the nation's houses of worship receive government funds for social service projects.
Voucher Foes Win First Round In Fla. School Choice Lawsuit
Opponents of Florida's new school voucher law won an important first victory in November when a state court refused to dismiss portions of a lawsuit challenging the plan.
Circuit Judge Ralph Smith ruled that voucher opponents may continue to challenge the law on grounds that it violates a provision of the Florida Constitution that guarantees a uniform, free and high-quality education for all students. Anti-voucher groups, including Americans United, want to raise the argument because they contend that by funneling money to private religious schools, Florida is harming public education.
Pro-voucher groups had hoped to have that portion of the lawsuit tossed out and focus instead solely on the question of whether vouchers violate the separation of church and state. Smith, however, said the plaintiffs have standing to raise both issues.
Clint Bolick, of the pro-voucher Institute for Justice, told the Gainesville Sun, "We were hoping to make this litigation more efficient and to remove what we consider to be a frivolous claim. But frankly, we're in this for the long haul." Angry over the setback, Bolick promised to put on a "show trial" that would vindicate the program.
In other news from Florida, a recent poll shows that a majority of state residents oppose voucher plans. The poll, conducted in November by the Miami Herald, found that 55 percent of respondents opposed vouchers, while 38 percent backed the idea. The rest were undecided.
Republican voters were more likely to support vouchers, but not by a big margin. Forty-seven percent of Republicans backed vouchers, while 43 percent were opposed. Jewish voters opposed vouchers by a 2-1 margin.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pushed vouchers through the legislature earlier this year. Informed of the poll results, Lucia Ross, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the results indicate the public has been misled by the media.
"The media insist on calling it vouchers when it's really opportunity scholarships," Ross said. "It's not about vouchers, it's about giving parents choices."
But Rob Schroth, whose firm conducted the poll, defended the results. "Vouchers have never been popular among voters, either in Florida or throughout the nation," he said. "Vouchers were packaged very well by a popular governor. If the voucher program proves to be somehow a big success, these numbers could reverse themselves. But if the voucher program shows to be one that most people don't participate in, or doesn't improve the education of Florida's young people, I think it will collapse like a house of cards."
Another new poll, this one nationwide, indicates that most Americans have a poor understanding of what vouchers are. The survey of 1,200 adults conducted by the non-partisan group Public Agenda found that 63 percent of respondents said they know little or nothing about the issue. Even in Milwaukee and Cleveland, two cities where voucher experiments are under way, 60 percent of respondents indicated having little knowledge of vouchers. The poll also found that 81 percent of those asked said they know little about charter schools.
Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda, said the poll results are cause for concern. "It's hard to overstate how unfamiliar and confusing these proposals are to most citizens -- parents included," she said. "In focus groups, Public Agenda's moderators had to hand out printed explanations of how vouchers and charter school proposals work. The country simply has to address this gulf in understanding."
Voucher Moms Outraged By Kids' Treatment At
Fla. Private School
Two single mothers in Pensacola say they are outraged over how their children have been treated in a Roman Catholic school that is taking part in Florida's new controversial voucher law, and they want them back in the public schools.
Latonga Reed and Joyce Patterson say their five children are being mistreated at St. John the Evangelist School, one of nine private schools participating in the voucher program. "I think my children are being singled out from the other children," Patterson told the Pensacola News Journal. "I don't think they are being treated right. They are not friendly to us there."
Patterson said her 10-year-old son has been subjected to racial slurs and shunned by other students. "They seem like they are very prejudiced," she said. "It seems like they are very unhappy that these kids got chosen to go to this school."
Reed said her 7-year-old daughter has been throwing up in school, due, Reed believes, to the fast-food lunches the school serves. She said school officials never called to tell her that her daughter was ill. She also complained that another student spat in her 5-year-old son's ice cream one day.
Both women are also angry because they lost the free school lunches and breakfasts they had been receiving when their children attended Spencer Bibbs Academy. Bibbs, a public school, is one of two public institutions rated as failing under the law, making its students eligible for vouchers.
Education officials at first refused to allow the children to go back to Bibbs, saying the voucher law would not allow it. Under increasing pressure, Gov. Jeb Bush, who came up with the voucher plan, intervened and asked Bibbs officials to take the students back. Bibbs officials agreed, and Patterson's children have already re-enrolled. (Reed's case is still under consideration because she no longer lives in the Bibbs district.)
Sister Patricia Pepitone, principal of St. John the Evangelist, told the News Journal that Patterson and Reed had not brought their complaints to her. If they had, Pepitone said, the school would have responded.
Reed disputed that, asserting she was ignored when she brought her concerns to St. John officials in the past. "They are just real rude there," she said. "I've tried to talk about some of these issues, but they just have a frown on their face."
Patterson's son, Marquis Adams, said he was glad to be back in a public school. "We had more friends there, we fit in with the other kids," he said. "They know about us and what we're like. When we act up, they always knew how to fix us."
In the wake of the controversy, state Rep. DeeDee Ritchie, who opposes vouchers, said she would introduce legislation that would allow families dissatisfied with voucher schools to enroll their child in any public school in their district.
Georgia Attorney General Says Bible Classes
Must Be Objective And Fair
Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker has issued a written opinion telling public schools they may offer courses on the Bible only if they are secular in nature and approach the subject in an objective manner.
Baker was asked for advice on the question by members of the state Board of Education. The issue came up after two state legislators, Rep. Tommy Smith and Sen. Tommie Williams, announced plans to introduce legislation to give public high schools money to offer courses on the Old and New Testaments.
"It is my official opinion that courses that include reference to the Bible may survive First Amendment scrutiny only if their content is determined to be secular and they are taught in a secular, objective manner," Baker wrote in his seven-page opinion.
Board members said they found the opinion useful, and on Nov. 9 the board decided not to fund five Bible courses. "As I read the conclusion, frankly, I think he's saying, as a state school board, we need to stay out of this," Board Chairman Otis Brumby told the Savannah Morning News.
Member Bruce Jackson agreed, saying, "If we got a clear-cut legal opinion saying we could offer it, I would have no problem offering it any more than driver's education. [But] I don't want to buy a lawsuit."
In the opinion, Baker stressed that the legality of the classes would be determined by what is actually taught in the classroom. Smith and Williams insisted that they intend for the courses to be secular in nature and said training for the coursework would include information about how to avoid church-state problems.
Nevertheless, Williams seems to have a bias toward a fundamentalist-style interpretation of the Bible. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November that the Bible is accurate in matters of history, anthropology and archaeology. He also implied that the courses would be Christian in nature, telling the Savannah newspaper, "If Muslims want to teach the Koran, then they need to go before the school board...just as we're doing."
In other news:
* A new guide on the Bible in public schools has been released by a coalition of religious and public policy groups. The document, developed by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association, recommends that public schools offer courses in the Bible as literature instead of Bible as history classes. It advises instructors not to teach miracles and divine actions described in the Bible as fact and says the primary purpose of the courses should be educational, not devotional. (The text may be read on-line at www.freedomforum.org).
Groups endorsing the document include People For the American Way, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Jewish Congress, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council of Islamic Education.
Americans United was asked to sign on to the statement but declined. While AU believes the publication contains much good advice, the organization's attorneys were concerned that it promoted public schools Bible classes too much, implying that all schools ought to teach such courses. AU's view is that public schools may offer these courses as an elective if they are properly structured, but that they are under no obligation to do so and do students no disservice by not offering them. Americans United also maintains that since the Bible is not a history book, it cannot be taught as such.
* A northwest Ohio public school district has dropped a sectarian religion class in the wake of mounting complaints. Officials at the Arcadia public school system said they would end the in-school classes, which featured Bible stories and Christian songs.
"If we maintain the program, we'll be facing a legal challenge we can't win," Superintendent David Lewis told local reporters. "And I've been told by more than one person that's what we're facing if we don't drop the class."
Lewis added, "If children are being taught one thing in their home, and they come to school and can't attend a class because it's teaching something different and they are forced to wait in the hall, that's wrong. That's not what public education is all about."
Christian Coalition Woes Widen With Lawsuit
Over Past-Due Bills
The Christian Coalition's financial and organizational troubles are continuing to widen.
In the most recent developments, the group is being sued for nearly $400,000 by a direct-mail marketing firm that says it hasn't been paid since last spring, and Randy Tate, formerly the group's executive director, has resigned.
Coalition leaders acknowledged in December that the group's debt is now near $2 million. At the same time, a fund-raising firm called Stephen Winchell and Associates filed a lawsuit against the group in Arlington County, Va., claiming it is owed $386,000. "It's shocking," Winchell told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. "We've been legitimately wronged here."
Winchell, whose firm has helped the Coalition raise a total of $7 million, told the newspaper that the Coalition owes money to lots of other organizations, such as printers and companies that provide office supplies. He said the total owed by the Coalition to vendors may be as much as $2 million.
But Roberta Combs, a former South Carolina Coalition activist that Coalition President Pat Robertson hired to turn the organization around, insisted the debt is not a serious problem. "Any time you owe someone money it's certainly a source of concern," she said. "We're in the process of working that out and paying it off."
Robertson himself conceded that the Coalition's finances are in disarray. He said Combs had inherited the problems, telling the newspaper, "Her predecessors left her quite a mess and she's been trying...to clean it up."
Nevertheless, Robertson believes the debt is "manageable," said Chris Freund, a Coalition spokesman. "It's not something that is keeping him up at night. He doesn't feel the debt is anything that will keep us from doing what we need to do."
Along with the financial crisis, Robertson's Coalition has also been plagued with an exodus of leadership. Tate, who was hired to replace Ralph Reed in 1997 but later demoted to head of the Coalition's Washington lobbying office, resigned in late November. His departure leaves the organization with no experienced leaders.
"There's basically no one left," one source close to the group told the Virginian-Pilot. "If you looked at the organizational chart in February and looked at it today, you wouldn't recognize it."
The Coalition has announced plans to shut down its national office in Chesapeake, Va., and relocate to the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. More down-sizing is expected when the group makes the move.
The problems have forced Robertson to become increasingly shrill in his fund-raising letters. His Nov. 5 appeal advised Coalition members that "we're at war with the forces of darkness" and warned that "political leaders in both major parties are doing everything in their power to silence the voice of Christians in the 2000 elections."
"Our enemies don't like our agenda," Robertson said. "They don't want us to bring our Lord Jesus Christ and His priorities back to America....I must tell you that now is the time YOU can make a difference for Christ as never before."
In other news about the Coalition:
* A federal judge in Alabama has rejected the Christian Coalition's attempt to do an end-run around campaign finance disclosure laws in the state, ruling that the group must disclose the names of donors who contributed more than $100 to its recent anti-lottery effort.
The Coalition claimed it should be exempt from a state law that requires any group that spends at least $1,000 on an election or ballot measure to register as a political action committee and report contributors who give more than $100. The Coalition had announced it would spend $20,000 on a drive to keep a state-sponsored lottery out of Alabama.
Coalition attorney James Bopp argued in court that the law infringed on the group's free speech rights and called it "a profound burden." He said the disclosure law would "discourage some donors and subject some to harassment."
But U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer was not swayed. Ruling from the bench Sept. 16, Vollmer said the Alabama law does not infringe on free speech.
Despite the close ties between the Coalition and Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor (R), the state's top legal officials argued against the group in court. "This suit threatened to create a loophole that would allow proponents and opponents of any ballot issue to funnel huge sums of money into their campaigns without voters ever knowing the source of that funding," Secretary of State Jim Bennett told the Associated Press. "This ruling upholds the voters' right to know."
Although it lost in court, the Coalition was able to claim a victory on the lottery question on Oct. 2 when Alabamans voted on the referendum. Despite a strong push from Gov. Don Siegelman (D), the lottery proposal was rejected 54 percent to 46 percent, thanks largely to church-based opposition.
* The Christian Coalition has filed suit against a similar campaign finance disclosure law in Maine. State law there, like Alabama, requires groups taking sides on ballot referenda to register as political action committees and disclose donors. Paul Volle, Christian Coalition of Maine's executive director, filed suit against the regulations in federal court in September.
Volle and the Christian Coalition helped defeat a Maine gay-rights referendum in 1998. Volle was subsequently fined $250 by the state Ethics Commission for not registering his front group, Management Research Development Associates, as a political action committee.
* The Alaska Public Offices Commission has fined the state Christian Coalition $1,850, charging that the group campaigned against a medical marijuana ballot initiative last year without complying with campaign disclosure laws. The Coalition added statements to a voter guide urging Alaskans to "Vote NO on Measure 8. (Legalizes Drug Use.")
The Commission is a bipartisan panel composed of five citizens. One member told the Anchorage Daily News that the commission believed the Coalition should have realized its activities violated state law. "There seemed to be a consensus that this was an experienced political group that should have known that adopting a position opposed to a ballot measure was an undertaking that would trigger reporting requirements under the law," said Commissioner Phil Volland.
Deborah Luper, the former director of the Alaska Christian Coalition, said the group has now become inactive.
* The Coalition's troubles have affected its influence in Washington. Fortune magazine last month ranked the 114 most powerful lobbying groups in the nation's capital. The Coalition was 35, down from number 7 in 1998. The magazine called that "the biggest fall from grace" in 1999. The rankings were determined by surveying every member of Congress, Capitol Hill aides, White House staffers, lobbyists and top-ranking officials of lobbying firms.
Texas Religious Right Allies Accused Of Campaign Violations
Three Republicans in Harris County, Texas, have filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission charging that a local judge funneled illegal campaign contributions through a political action committee run by controversial far-right activist Steven Hotze.
Hotze, a wealthy Religious Right activist and doctor in Houston, runs Conservative Republicans of Harris County, which is a registered political action committee. Under state law, candidates for judicial offices are prohibited from donating more than $500 to PACs. The complaint filed against 281st District Judge Jane Bland alleges that she contributed $10,000 to the Republican Party of Texas, which laundered it through Hotze's PAC. The PAC is accused of using half of the money to undertake get-out-the-vote activities that helped Bland get elected.
Three Republican women filed the complaints last October and recently released the charges publicly. Aside from Bland, they have also filed complaints against Texas Republican Party Treasurer Gina Parker and Bart Standley, the treasurer of Conservative Republicans of Harris County.
One observer of Harris County politics, Houston attorney Mickey Jo Lawrence, said she researched campaign funding in 1998 and found that 26 judicial candidates gave $120,700 to the Texas GOP. During that same period, the party gave $129,500 to Hotze's PAC, reported the Texas Lawyer. Lawrence lost a 1996 race for county attorney to Michael Fleming, who was backed by Hotze. Hotze's supporters have accused her of being bitter about that loss.
"Let's just say it is sour grapes. So what?" Lawrence said. "Candidates are supposed to play the game by the rules, and there is supposed to be an equal playing field. I'm just pointing out, 'Hey, you're not following the rules.'"
The complaint alleges that Bland violated Section 253.1611 of the Election Code, which limits the amount of money judicial candidates can give to PACs. The section in question was added to Texas' campaign laws in 1997 through a measure sponsored by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat. It was widely viewed as targeting Hotze, a political operative aligned with Christian Reconstructionism, the most radical component of the Religious Right.
The complaint against Bland was filed by Sondra Epstein, a member of a moderate GOP group called Memorial West Republican Women. The complaint against Parker was filed by Barbara Thomas, and the complaint against Standley was filed by Sharon Rankin. The three say they are concerned about the Religious Right's control of the Republican Party machinery in Harris County and Texas.
Colorado School District Denies Charter School
To Religious Group
Officials with the Aurora, Colo., public school system have voted to deny a charter school application filed by a Christian group after intervention from Americans United.
Charter status was sought by the Heritage Christian Center, which had formerly operated as a religious school. Americans United General Counsel Steven K. Green said the proposal was clearly an attempt to win public support for a religious school.
"There is no dispute that Heritage Christian Center previously operated a parochial school which was closed a year ago for the purpose of reopening as a charter school," Green wrote to Aurora Board of Education Chairman Willie Jones on Dec. 3. "Also, there is every reason to expect that this proposed charter school will tailor its program to cater to those students who previously attended the parochial school....Even assuming the program would be scrupulously secular (something that cannot be guaranteed due to monitoring constraints), the past relationship between the church and parochial school and the fact that the charter school will be affiliated with the same church renders the arrangement suspect."
On Dec. 7 the board, noting the religious nature of the Heritage Christian Center, denied the charter application. The school would have been housed in buildings at the church, a facility festooned with signs reading "Jesus Saves" and "Sinners Welcome Here."
Meanwhile, education officials in South Carolina have closed Charleston County's only charter school, amid allegations that the school, which is deeply in debt, was teaching religion.
Officials shut down Education Redirection in October, charging that its director, Jim Ring, had failed to operate it in a responsible manner. The school, which serves troubled juveniles, is half a million dollars in debt and public education officials feared there could be lawsuits from angry parents and staff members who have not been paid.
Among the allegations brought against Education Redirection are claims that the school unconstitutionally taught religion. Ring, who once told the Charleston Post and Courier, "This school does not belong to Jim Ring. This is God's school," admitted that religion was taught but said it occurred during non-instructional time.
Ring said ministers often spoke to students before classes, and prayer and Bible study were offered. He also noted that Bible verses adorned the school walls and that staff meetings include prayer. Ring said he would not apologize for these activities, saying he believes they can save troubled youngsters.
But local education officials said the school's debt and other problems forced them act. Superintendent Ron McWirt said he had been hearing complaints about the school for months, many of them coming from employees at the facility.
McWirt also said Ring dragged his feet on getting the school's charter approved by the state. As a result, Education Redirection's curriculum is not approved, and the work done by students cannot count toward a diploma.
"The students have lost a lot of time in this program," McWirt said.
Ring and his wife were traveling in Israel when the Charleston School Board voted to revoke the school's charter, an action later upheld by a state court. The Post and Courier reported that Ring returned to face a staff insurrection over back pay. A third of the staff resigned, among them the school's operating manager. Aside from allegations of teaching religion, local education officials also said the school's classes were too large and accused the school of falsifying attendance records and other data.
Don't Abandon Public School System,
Urges Christianity Today
The prominent evangelical Christian magazine Christianity Today has editorialized against recent appeals for conservative Christians to pull their children out of public schools, calling instead for parents to work with educators to strengthen and improve the system.
The editorial, which appeared in the Sept. 6, 1999, edition of the magazine, says Religious Right leaders like Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Robert Simonds of Citizens for Excellence in Education are wrong to suggest a total disengagement from public schools. It also criticizes movements like Exodus 2000, whose founder, E. Ray Moore, had hoped to spur a massive exodus of conservative Christians from public education by the year 2000.
"Unfortunately, these groups have taken the hyperbolic rhetoric conservative Christians have used against public schools to its illogical conclusion," asserts the editorial. "If public schools are as evil as some talk-radio hosts would have us believe, drastic action would be warranted. But the situation is not that dire."
The editorial goes on to say that public schools are improving "academically, socially and even religiously -- often due to Christian involvement." It calls on conservative Christians to remain engaged with the public school system and calls the religious diversity of public schools a good thing.
"In fact, public education's greatest asset, the diversity of its student bodies, will help students' evangelism as they grow older," asserts the editorial. "Having grown up with people of various ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, these believers will know how to relate to non-Christians. Importantly, they will understand that non-Christians are people created in the image of a God who loves them, not monsters out to do Christians in."
Concludes the editorial, "School reformers aren't out to create promiscuous gay atheists who have trouble fitting in s\xe9ances between having abortions and shooting up. But one could get that feeling from some of the horror stories passed around evangelical water coolers. There are valid reasons for educating children at home or in private schools, but fear is not one of them. Education decisions should be based on local choices, not stories about events that happened in one classroom in one school 1,000 miles away five years ago....Voices of parents are often listened to in public schools. Our options to better our children's education and the education of all children are not exhausted." The full text of the editorial may be read on-line at www.christianityonline.com.