Classroom Indoctrination?: What You Haven't Heard About A California Teacher's Case

Has a public school in California banned the use of the Declaration of Independence because of the document's mention of a creator? To listen to a Religious Right advocacy group, school officials at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, Calif., have done so.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), whose founders include right-wing religious broadcasters such as James Dobson and D. James Kennedy, issued a press release on Dec. 12 under the headline, "Declaration of Independence Banned From Classroom," announcing its lawsuit filed in federal court against the Bay Area public school officials.

The ADF's lawsuit is laden with paranoid accusations against Principal Patricia Vidmar and other school officials. The ADF claims that Vidmar targeted fifth-grade teacher Steven Williams because he is an "orthodox Christian."

But, the ADF's lawsuit is just another example, albeit an especially egregious one, of the Religious Right's desire to have its brand of Christianity taught in public school classrooms. In this instance, the ADF says Williams was simply trying to teach his fifth-graders about the role Christianity has played in American history and that his superiors have responded with hostility toward his methods because they don't want any mention of God in their classrooms.

Williams has taken to right-wing radio and cable news opinion shows, such as Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" and Pat Robertson's "700 Club," to whine about being discriminated against because he is a Christian.

The ADF's lawsuit has garnered lots of attention and spurred hysterical reaction from folks who, according to newspaper accounts, have bombarded the elementary school with hateful threats and wildly uninformed declarations. A Cupertino public school official told the San Francisco Chronicle that the district has received e-mails stating, "All of you in the school district can burn in hell."

The ADF, Williams and their theocratic-loving disciples are shameless and their tactics despicable.

A close and calm look at the facts surrounding this situation suggest that Stevens Creek public school officials are on solid ground in their treatment of Williams. For more than a year, parents have complained to school officials that Williams has been using a slew of documents to proselytize their children.

As reported in The New York Times, the Chronicle and by Stevens Creek elementary school officials, Williams provided his fifth-graders with supplemental material to allegedly prove his theories about the role of religion in American history. That material, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, consisted of a variety of historical and other documents that mention God or Christianity.

One handout was something called "What Great Leaders Have Said About the Bible." It included quotes from nine U.S. presidents, such as George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and a quote from Jesus Christ, "It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."

Parents began complaining to school officials that Williams was going beyond teaching about religion, that he was proselytizing their students. "My daughter came home one day and said, 'Mr. Williams talks about Jesus 100 times a day,'" Mike Zimmers told the Chronicle.

Dorothy Pickler told the newspaper that she contacted school officials and requested that her fifth-grader not be subjected to Williams. "Because what he's doing isn't teaching history," she said. "If you were teaching at a church school, that would be great. But he isn't."

Another parent, Armineh Noravian, whose child was formerly a student of Williams, concluded that this controversy is "about indoctrination."

Religion can be taught objectively in public schools in a constitutional manner. Federal courts have said so. Those courts have also noted that public school students can pray, read religious texts and join religious clubs, as long as they do so independently. But time and again, federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have declared that public school officials cannot proselytize their students.

The Stevens Creek school officials understand the American Constitution and its First Amendment. That's why Principal Vidmar has warned Williams about his pattern of using documents to proselytize students.

The school district released a statement that they were bound "to uphold the First Amendment which mandates separation between church and state," which includes ensuring that teachers with religious agendas, such as Williams, not subject captive audiences to preaching. District spokesman Jeffrey Nishihara told the Chronicle, "The district has not stopped teaching about the Declaration of Independence."

Williams was hired to teach fifth-graders, not preach to them. Stevens Creek officials have legitimate concerns that Williams is going beyond his assigned task. Instead of spending time suing school officials and seeking media publicity, Williams should submit applications to private Christian schools and spare us his tired arguments about Christian victimization.