July/August 1999 People & Events

Americans United, Allies File Lawsuit Against Florida School Vouchers

Americans United and a broad array of educational and public policy groups have launched a legal challenge to Florida's new religious school voucher program.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) signed the voucher measure into law June 21. Americans United and its allies filed suit in state court the next day.

The plan, called the "Opportunity Scholarship Program," allows students attending public schools deemed "failing" by the state to transfer to religious and other private schools at taxpayer expense, using vouchers worth $4,000. The Florida program is the first statewide voucher plan in the United States.

Critics say that most of the money will end up in the coffers of sectarian schools. For example, in Escambia County, which is expected to be the first jurisdiction to take part in the voucher program, 20 of the 25 private schools are sectarian. Together these 20 schools enroll 93 percent of the county's K-12 private school population.

The legal challenge, Holmes v. Bush, filed in state court in Tallahassee, charges that the voucher program violates the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

"Taxpayers should never be forced to pay for religious instruction," said Sidney Goetz, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of Americans United, at a Tallahassee press conference. "This program clearly violates the separation of church and state, and I am confident that the courts will strike it down."

In addition to the U.S. Constitution's church-state provisions, the Florida Constitution contains strong language prohibiting public funding of religion. Article I, Sec. 3 of the Florida Constitution states, "No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

Georgia Congressman Launches 'Witch Hunt' In U.S. Military

A right-wing House member from Georgia has written to U.S. military officials demanding they stop service personnel from engaging in Wiccan ceremonies on military bases.

Rep. Bob Barr insists Wicca, the modern name for witchcraft, is not a bona fide religion and that military officials do not have to permit its practice on bases. Barr's letter came in response to newspaper accounts about Wiccan rituals at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas. He has threatened to hold congressional hearings on the matter and has introduced an amendment to a $290 billion defense bill that would forbid Wiccan worship on military bases.

"This move sets a dangerous precedent that could easily result in the practice of all sorts of bizarre practices being supported by the military under the rubric of 'religion,'" an outraged Barr wrote to Lt. Gen. Leon S. Leponte, the commanding officer of Fort Hood. "What's next? Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for Satanic rituals? Will Rastafarians demand the inclusion of ritualistic marijuana cigarettes in their rations?"

The Wiccan group at Fort Hood first began meeting about two years ago. It has a few dozen members who meet regularly for outdoor rituals. Their gatherings attracted little notice until a Texas newspaper ran a photo of one of the services. Since then, the base has been flooded with complaints from local fundamentalist Christians, demanding that the Wiccans worship services be discontinued immediately.

"God says, 'Suffer not a witch to live,'" the Rev. Jack Harvey of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Killeen told The Washington Post. "We would like to see them saved, but God doesn't change his mind. We're not going to quit until they're gone."

Following Barr's letter, a number of Religious Right groups took up the crusade. Led by Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, the organizations called on Christians to boycott the Army until Wicca is banned.

"If the Army wants witches and Satanists in its ranks, it can do so without Christians in those ranks," Weyrich said. Groups supporting his drive include the Traditional Values Coalition, the Christian Action Network and the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Weyrich had originally listed the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association as endorsing his crusade. However, he later issued a statement saying both groups had "signed on" but then pulled off because they "either misunderstood what was being advocated or got cold feet." Chris Freund, a Christian Coalition spokesman, told the San Antonio Express News that the group had never joined the action.

Fort Hood Wiccans blamed the complaints on ignorance of their beliefs. Several pointed out that Wiccans do not believe in the devil and therefore are not Satanists. "If they deny our right to worship...then everybody loses," member Marcy Palmer told the Associated Press.

Military officials seem unlikely to shut down the group. Lt. Col. Donald Troyer, a Seventh-day Adventist Army chaplain who serves as liaison to the Wiccans, told the Austin American-Statesman that the group has the right to exist. "We're responding to the First Amendment," he said, "and we're glad to do it."

On June 8 Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent a letter to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, urging him to reject Barr's overture.

"Rep. Barr's comments reflect an appalling intolerance and a lack of understanding about the fundamental principles upon which this nation was founded," Lynn wrote. "The Constitution forbids government discrimination against any religious group. No government official may single out a religious minority group for unfavorable treatment or suppression. In other words, if some military personnel are free to exercise their religious beliefs on base, people of all religious faiths must be extended the same opportunity."

Note To Newt: Student Prayer And Bibles Were Allowed At Columbine

In the wake of the tragic shooting at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo., several politicians and Religious Right leaders claimed that all prayer and religious activities have been expelled from America's public schools and only their reintroduction will prevent similar occurrences in the future.

That assertion has just been unmasked as specious by the people who ought to know best: the staff at Columbine High.

Associated Baptist Press contacted officials at the school in June and asked them about student religious expression at Columbine. Marilyn Saltzman, a school spokeswoman, told ABP, "We honor the separation of church and state, but we do not believe that any mention of religion is prohibited. Students are certainly allowed to read the Bible and have a Bible in [their] possession."

Saltzman added that school officials do not promote religion, but they also do not interfere with students who want to pray before a test, write an essay about God for class or join after-school Bible clubs.

Several Religious Right leaders and politicians made baseless charges about religion in public schools following the April 20 Columbine shootings. Pat Buchanan said on CNN that "God and the Ten Commandments and all moral instruction have been removed" from public schools. Buchanan asserted that had killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into school with Bibles, they would have been taken "to the principal's office."

Recently former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has picked up this drumbeat. Speaking to the Republican Women Leaders Forum on May 12, Gingrich said, "We have had a 35-year experiment in a unionized, bureaucratic, credentialed, secular assault on the core values of this country. We should not be surprised, therefore, that eventually this would yield bad fruit - because the seeds were bad. For 35 years, God has been driven out of the classroom. We have seen the result in a secular, atheistic system in which God is not allowed to exist."

Continued Gingrich, "For 35 years, bureaucratic, credentialed unions have driven knowledge out of the classrooms...."

Gingrich's charges drew a rebuke from syndicated columnist Tom Teepen. "It must come as news to God that he's kaput," observed Teepen. "Gingrich says (wrongly) that students are not being taught the Declaration of Independence because (wrongly II) the word 'Creator' is in it. All this in reference again to Columbine, though it is clear to anyone who has been paying attention that Littleton is a thoroughly churched town. Its students refer often and easily to God, Jesus and faith. Gingrich seems to doubt their sincerity."

Concluded Teepen, "Gingrich's political tent is very much open for business again, and he's hammering home the ideological wedges that have always been his tent stakes."

Meanwhile, legislators in several states are using the Columbine tragedy as an excuse to interject religion into public schools, including:

* South Carolina: Sen. Mike Fair has introduced a measure that would require public schools to allow chaplains to lead weekly 30-minute religious sessions on campus. The Greenville Republican told the Columbia State that the proposal is especially needed in light of the Columbine shootings.

* Nevada: Legislators are considering a bill that would allow prayer meetings and chaplains on campus. Critics say the measure is unnecessary, since public school students can already form religious clubs under the federal Equal Access Act. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Maurice Washington, a Sparks Republican and minister, said he wants the door open to having chaplains in schools. "The program works the same as in the military," said Washington. "Individuals turn to them looking for consultation, wisdom or guidance."

* Alaska: The state Senate approved a measure calling on Congress to allow prayer in public schools. Critics said the measure was unnecessary since prayer is already permitted, but the sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Jerry Ward (R-Anchorage), argued to the contrary. "If there's a vacancy of God, then I think Satan is there," he said. The measure passed 16-4.

* Louisiana: The state legislature has approved a bill allowing vocal prayer in public schools. The House of Representatives passed H.B. 2123 unanimously, and the Senate passed it by a 30-4 vote June 11. The measure deletes the word "silent" from a provisional state law that says children may pray in schools. The bill is pending before Gov. Mike Foster (R).

Advocates of school-sponsored prayer also tried to change state law to allow referendums so they could put the issue before the voters but failed. During the debate on that measure, Rep. Naomi Farve (D-New Orleans) warned lawmakers that the state could suffer dire consequences if a prayer bill were not passed. "If we are afraid to stand up for God, when all the storms and hurricanes come, He will turn his back on us," Farve said.

Marty Fowler Beasley, a member of the Lincoln Parish School Board, said she supports school-sponsored prayer even if members of minority religions are opposed to it. "I think we can allow [a student] to say what he wishes...whether or not we're stepping on the toes of someone Jewish or Buddhist," Beasley said.

D.C. Public Schools Discontinue Promotion Of Religious Play

Officials with the public school system in Washington, D.C., have promised to end promotion of a religious play after receiving a complaint from Americans United.

Administrators at Ballou Senior High School in Washington encouraged a May 20 performance of "Ruby," even though the play is replete with biblical references and what The Washington Post called an "overtly from-the-pulpit message."

The play, written by Deborah Jean Nicholson, is designed to persuade teenagers not to engage in premarital sex. Nicholson told The Post, "The Lord wants the message to get out for his children, to know the truth about sex."

In a letter to school officials, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and Litigation Counsel Ayesha Khan said the school had taken the wrong approach to address the problem of teen sexual activity.

"We applaud the school's and the playwright's efforts to address the problem of teen pregnancy," wrote Lynn and Khan. "We share the belief that this problem warrants the dedication of significant resources and energy. However, public school efforts to confront the problem must be undertaken from a secular, objective perspective, leaving for parents the option of supplementing a child's education on these matters with religious teachings."

On May 27 Joseph M. Carrillo, associate superintendent for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), wrote to Lynn and Khan and assured them that the play would not be repeated. In the letter, Carrillo noted that Ballou High's assistant superintendent acknowledged that the performance "may have overstepped the permissible boundaries established by DCPS."

Americans United subsequently sent school officials a variety of materials explaining the law regarding religion in public schools and offered to help school attorneys draft comprehensive policies in this area.

In other news about religion in public schools:

* A Gorman, Texas, student who wears his hair long for religious reasons has won readmission to his high school, thanks to intervention by Americans United.

Freshman Zachary Sanders was expelled for failing to meet the school's hair-length requirement for boys. His family contacted Americans United, which informed the school that the boy wears his hair long for religious reasons. Zachary belongs to a small religious group called Oahspe. Founded in the late 19th century, Oahspe teaches that men and women should wear long hair as a sign of their spirituality.

In a letter to school officials, AU attorney Khan cited previous cases in Texas courts holding that Native American students have the right to wear long hair for religious reasons. "Similarly, because Zachary's desire to have long hair derives from the teachings of The Oahspe Bible (p. 146, verse 5), failing to excuse him from the hair length requirement constitutes a violation of his Free Exercise rights," wrote Khan.

After further discussion, school officials agreed to let Sanders return to school.

* Crosby, Minn., school officials, in response to an Americans United protest, have agreed to stop allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles to fourth graders.

Residents had complained that the Gideons asked bus drivers to distributes Bibles to the children and on one occasion arranged to have the drivers take the buses to a private park where children were discharged and given Bibles.

School officials assured Americans United that the practices will stop. In a June 3 letter Superintendent William Makinen wrote, "This letter is to inform you that the Crosby-Ironton Public Schools will no longer allow this practice to take place. In conversing with the Gideons prior to the date of distribution, they had mentioned a process of handing out Bibles which was completely contrary to what actually happened on May 20, 1999. I am disturbed at what the Gideons said they were going to do as compared to what they actually did in distributing the Bibles. Therefore, any future requests from the Gideons to hand out Bibles to our students will de denied."

Federal Judge Orders N.Y. School To Stop 'New Age' Practices

A New York public school must stop promoting practices that involve Hinduism or "New Age" religions, a federal court has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Charles L. Brieant III found that the Bedford Central School District had violated the rights of three Roman Catholic students in three instances. He rejected, however, the parents' challenges to 12 other practices.

The case was initially filed in October 1996 by parents angry over the fact that some students were playing a fantasy role-playing game called "Magic: The Gathering" after class. The Catholic parents maintained that the game promoted Satanism and the occult. Over time, the parents added other complaints to the case.

While the judge rejected the majority of the parents' alleged abuses, he declared three to be violations of the separation of church and state: a class in which fourth graders were asked to make paper masks of the Hindu god Ganesh, an Earth Day celebration that revolved around creation of an outdoor altar and a lesson during which students made "worry dolls" out of wire thread and toothpicks. He ordered school officials to offer teachers instruction on church-state law.

The "worry dolls," which students were advised to leave under their pillows at night to soak up their anxieties, were a "rank example of teaching superstition to children of a young and impressionable age," Brieant wrote. "It assumes that an inanimate object has some occult power to relieve us from worry and assure a good night's sleep."

The Hindu lesson, Brieant ruled, began as objective instruction about Indian culture but went too far. The Earth Day celebration, which Brieant termed "truly bizarre," contained too many religious overtones, he said.

But Brieant dismissed most of the plaintiffs' challenges, including their complaint against "Magic: The Gathering." The judge ruled that the school had not sponsored the game by merely allowing students to play it after hours. He also rejected the parents' challenge to an anti-drug program called DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), holding that it does not infringe on their religious beliefs. (Parents claimed the program failed to teach absolute values, including that drug use is morally wrong. Police officers who taught the classes disputed the claim.)

The parents' case was handled by an ultra-conservative Catholic group called the American Catholic Lawyers Association. Both sides are planning to appeal aspects of the ruling. (Altman v. Bedford Central School District)

Pat Robertson Seeks $54.5 Million In State Bonds For Regent U.

Television preacher Pat Robertson is trying to win state approval for a $54.5 million bond issue to benefit his Regent University.

Opponents, led by Americans United, are arguing that Robertson's graduate-level school is infused with sectarian bias and thus does not qualify for state aid through bonds or other means.

Robertson won a procedural victory June 22 when the Virginia College Building Authority approved Regent's application and sent the matter to a circuit court in Richmond, which will determine if the bond proposal conforms to the state constitution and laws. Critics of the measure were not surprised by the vote, as the authority routinely approves requests that come before it.

Americans United Board of Trustee member Robert S. Alley attended the meeting and urged the board not to approve the bond request. Alley said Regent materials, including the student application, clearly show that the institution is "pervasively sectarian."

Regent's mission statement says the school exists to "bring glory to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit." The university, the statement continues, seeks to provide "education from biblical perspectives" and "to be a leading center of Christian thought and action."

The school's vision statement reads, "Our vision, through our graduates and other scholarly activities, is to provide Christian leadership in transforming society by affirming and teaching the principles of truth, justice and love as described in the Holy Scriptures, embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, and enabled through the power of the Holy Spirit."

The university admission form requires student applicants to submit a clergy recommendation and to discuss in detail "how your personal and spiritual objectives relate" to Regent's "Christ-centered educational philosophy."

Robertson hopes to use the bonds to finance construction of new buildings at Regent's Virginia Beach campus and a satellite facility in Alexandria, Va., as well as refinance the debt on student housing facilities in Virginia Beach.

In 1991, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Lynchburg Industrial Development Authority could not issue $60 million in bonds for the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Robertson had a request for $10 million in bonds pending before the local authority in Virginia Beach at the time but withdrew it in light of the ruling.

Issuance of the new bond proposal would save the school about $30 million.

Americans United intends to monitor the situation and, if the circuit court approves the bond proposal, will consider an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Ala. Judge Who Loves Ten Commandments May Have Broken A Few

An Alabama judge who became a hero to the Religious Right by posting the Ten Commandments in his courtroom may have broken a few of them himself.

Members of the Alabama Ethics Commission voted 5-0 in June to refer the case of Etowah County Circuit Judge Roy Moore to the attorney general's office for further investigation and possible criminal prosecution.

Commission members said they believe Moore received personal gain from a legal defense fund his supporters created during a legal challenge to Moore's courtroom display of the Ten Commandments. The case reached the Alabama Supreme Court, where it was dismissed on technical grounds.

As the case worked its way through the courts, Moore frequently appeared at Religious Right rallies and press conferences in Alabama and in Washington. Ethics Commission Director Jim Sumner told reporters that he believes Moore spent the money on things other than his legal expenses and used the "mantle of this office" to seek donations.

Moore's attorney conceded that the fund has raised more than $100,000 but insisted that the money was properly spent, arguing that it has not covered all of Moore's legal expenses. Members of the commission countered that they have repeatedly warned public officials in Alabama not to raise money for legal defense funds because it might compromise their objectivity.

Moore called the vote against him "a travesty" and a form of "harassment." He added, "It's an attempt to stop the message about God. It's no great surprise."

If convicted, Moore could face a fine of $10,000 or 20 years in prison. But observers in Alabama think that's unlikely. They note that Attorney General Bill Pryor is a Religious Right ally who has lauded Moore's actions.

Bush Voucher Plan Fails To Get Vote In Texas Legislature

A school voucher plan backed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush failed after Democrats in the state Senate refused to let it come up for a vote.

Bush and his supporters in the legislature had hoped that vouchers would pass in Texas this year. But public opinion leaned anti-voucher, and many Democrats were galvanized by efforts by pro-voucher groups to pour money into the coffers of candidates who backed vouchers.

The Bush-backed proposal, sponsored by Sen. Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), would have provided vouchers to students in six urban Texas counties where public schools are deemed "failing."

Partisan politics played a large role in the measure's defeat. One survey found that pro-voucher groups had channeled $5.2 million to pro-voucher candidates last November, most of them Republicans. In addition, San Antonio millionaire James Leininger personally distributed $1.8 million to pro-voucher groups and spent an additional half million lobbying through his group, Putting Children First.

But Leininger's organization may have made a tactical error in January 1998 when it sent a letter to out-of-state business leaders seeking funds to underwrite an effort to remove anti-voucher Democrats from office. The group, which had claimed to be non-partisan, lost much Democratic support. Bob Bullock, then lieutenant governor and the state's top-ranking Democrat, resigned as honorary chair of the organization.

In other news about school vouchers:

* Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge's voucher plan has failed yet again. Ridge had hoped to push his proposal through before the legislature recessed for the summer but failed. The House of Representatives adjourned June 17 without voting on it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Ridge, who declared vouchers a top priority, pressured legislators and tried to cut deals with as many as possible. "The store is open," quipped Rep. T.J. Rooney, a Lehigh Democrat.

But in the end too many lawmakers were frustrated by the rush and the fact that legislation was still being drafted as the deadline for adjourning approached.

During a June 23 campaign swing through Pennsylvania, Texas Gov. George W. Bush met with Ridge and told reporters that if elected president he will use the office as a bully pulpit to promote private school vouchers. Bush gave no specifics about the type of plan he would push but said details would come later.

* The Louisiana Senate voted 22-14 to kill a voucher plan in June, but supporters aren't giving up. "I can almost guarantee you that within the next four years, we will have some type of voucher program in this state," Kirby Ducote, executive director of the Louisiana Catholic Conference, told the Clarion-Herald, the newspaper of the New Orleans Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

* Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R) has called for a voucher plan, though he has yet to offer specifics. Gilmore endorsed the concept during a radio address May 21. "If we can put forward a voucher plan that is going to help education for kids generally, then it's something we ought to consider," Gilmore said.

Gilmore's push could become an issue in Virginia's statewide elections this November. Republicans hope to take control of both chambers, which could give Gilmore the votes he needs to push a plan through.

Maryland Crowd Imposes Prayer At Public School Graduation Ceremony

Angry over a compromise that excluded religious worship from a school graduation ceremony, members of the audience took matters into their own hands and recited the Lord's Prayer out loud in Calvert County, Md.

Student Nick Becker, who had protested the inclusion of prayer in the ceremony, walked out of the May 26 event and was later detained by police when he tried to reenter. He was also told he could not attend a post-graduation cruise that he had already paid for.

Becker had originally protested when he learned that fellow senior Julie Schenk planned to deliver an invocation and talk about Jesus during part of the ceremony. "There are so many people who don't know Christ in my school, as compared to people who do," Schenk told The Washington Post. "Yes, I can pray at home, but I think they need to hear that there are people who are praying for them, that God does love them."

Becker objected, insisting he did not want to listen to "this stuff I don't believe in." School officials asked Schenk to compromise and call for a moment of silent reflection instead of prayer. She agreed.

A local politician, Barbara A. Stinnett, advised Schenk to say the prayer anyway, but the girl refused, telling The Post, "If I just go ahead and do what I want, that's not setting a good example for other Christians."

But during the ceremony, when Schenk called for a moment of silence, a man began reciting the Lord's Prayer aloud. Soon about half the crowd of 4,000 joined in.

Becker walked out, and when he tried to go back in to get his diploma, state police blocked his way. (School officials said school policy does not permit students who leave an event to go back in.) When Becker tried to enter through another door, the police threatened to give him a citation for failing to obey a lawful order. Becker was later released to the custody of his parents and given his diploma after the ceremony.

Lt. George McKeon of the Maryland State Police said Becker was "extremely upset" and police feared he might disrupt the rest of the ceremony. (No charges have been filed against Becker, but police said they have not ruled that out.)

Many local officials enthusiastically supported the crowd's action. "This is a church-going community, and no one in Annapolis [Maryland's capital] or Washington, D.C., is going to tell us when and where we can pray," said Linda L. Kelley, president of the County Commission.