October 2002 People & Events

Child Advocacy Head In Fla. Under Fire For Religious Right Ties

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is under fire for appointing a Religious Right activist as head of a state child welfare agency even though the man is accused of backing harsh physical punishment of children and male supremacy in marriage.

Bush's appointment of Jerry Regier drew fire in August after a 1989 manifesto that Regier endorsed containing controversial opinions came to light. The piece, "The Christian World View of The Family," advocates spanking disobedient children even if it causes "temporary and superficial bruises and welts," attacks legal abortion, assails gay parenting and says women should work outside the home only in cases of extreme financial hardship and that they should consider such work "bondage."

Bush named Regier to lead the Florida Department of Children and Families in August after the agency was rocked by a series of scandals and its former head stepped down. Regier came to Florida from Oklahoma, where he ran the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The controversial article was published by the Coalition of Revival (COR), a Christian Reconstructionist-oriented organization that was active in the late 1980s and early '90s. Although his name appears on the essay, Regier has denied that he wrote it or even had input into its creation. Regier, however, served as co-chairman of the COR committee that produced the document

Regier now says he left the group in 1990. But COR President Jay Grimstead disagrees, asserting that Regier did not resign until 1994 or 1995.

Americans United, which has monitored the activities of COR, noted that the group's extreme agenda had become public long before the mid 1990s. In the late 1980s, several prominent Religious Right leaders who had backed COR jumped ship after a string of media stories about the organization's extreme views.

COR's Grimstead said Regier gave the impression that he was leaving the group only because he feared that being tied to it would harm his chances of working in government, not because he disagreed with its agenda.

"He told me in a friendly letter that he was now working for the government, and from my recollection, that it was best for him to disassociate himself from the group," Grimstead told the Pensacola News Journal. "He expressed concern as to how others would view his involvement in such a group."

Democrats in the state attacked the Regier appointment and pressured Bush to withdraw his nomination. But Bush refused, saying he believes Regier does not endorse the extreme views in the COR document.

Regier has longstanding ties to the Religious Right. In Oklahoma, he was prone to "experiment with things coming from the Religious Right," State Sen. Bernest Cain told The Palm Beach Post. He has also appeared at conferences sponsored by the Family Research Council.

After the COR document was exposed, other writings by Regier soon came to light. In a chapter he authored in a book titled Biblical Family Norms, Regier asserted that a "breakdown in traditional sex roles" has destroyed families. He accused "aggressive and competitive women, unconcerned with motherhood" of spawning "more ruthless men and a society so competitive that it disintegrates."

Elsewhere in his writings, Regier called for reducing benefits for women on welfare who have children outside of marriage. He asserted that husbands must have authority over their wives and children and called for shutting down school-based sex education clinics.

Poll Shows Support For Government Monitoring Of Religion

The ongoing war on terrorism has apparently taken a toll on the First Amendment. A new poll shows that nearly half of Americans surveyed believe the First Amendment goes too far in protecting rights, and increasing numbers believe the government should be able to monitor some religious groups.

The poll, "State of the First Amendment 2002," was issued last month by the First Amendment Center, an arm of the Freedom Forum in Nashville. In the survey, 49 percent said the First Amendment goes too far in protecting the rights it guarantees a jump of 10 points since 2001.

About half of the respondents said the government should be allowed to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security, even if that infringes on religious freedom. Forty percent said the government should have greater powers to monitor Muslim groups.

Ironically, the survey also indicated that many Americans are apparently not aware of what freedoms are listed in the First Amendment. Asked to name the specific freedoms in the amendment, only 18 percent could identify freedom of religion. (Fifty-eight percent could name freedom of speech, but only 14 percent knew freedom of the press is included.)

Other findings from the poll about church-state separation include:

 Seventy percent of Americans say the Constitution gives Americans the right amount of religious freedom. Six percent say it gives too much, and 20 percent say too little.

 Eighty-three percent call the right to practice the religion of your choice an "essential" right. Only 2 percent say this right is not important. Sixty-nine percent say the right to practice no religion at all is "essential."

 Most people agree that public criticism of religious groups should be permitted. Fifty-seven percent said they either strongly or mildly agreed with the statement, "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups." Forty-two percent strongly or mildly disagreed.

 Sixty-six percent strongly or mildly agreed with the idea of Muslims being allowed to hold a public rally, even if some found it offensive. Thirty-one percent strongly or mildly disagreed with allowing such a gathering.

 Fifty-three percent said students have too little religious freedom in public schools. Forty percent said they have the right amount; 3 percent said they have too much.

 Fifty-two percent strongly agree with the government posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings; 18 percent mildly agree. Sixteen percent strongly disagree, and 12 percent mildly disagree.

Religious Right Groups Join Forces To Select Texas Textbooks

Americans United activists in Texas are battling a coalition of Religious Right groups that has formed to pore over potential social studies textbooks with the aim of forcing the state to reject those that don't promote right-wing views.

Textbook battles have been a perennial feature of public education in Texas. In recent years, ultra-conservative critics have forced a number of changes in science books, watering down or removing entirely references to global warming, for example.

This year, social studies textbooks are in the crosshairs. Led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing, pro-voucher organization, a number of Religious Right pressure groups have banded together to examine the books under consideration. They have already criticized several for allegedly slighting Christianity or promoting socialism.

Republicans dominate the Texas State Board of Education 10 out of its 15 members belong to the GOP, and the Religious Right is able to exert great pressure on the body. When pressuring the board does not work, Religious Right groups simply take their complaints directly to the textbook publishing companies. Texas purchases millions of dollars worth of textbooks every year, making the market too attractive for most publishers to pass up. Religious Right groups not only get a hearing from the publishers, their demands are often accepted.

Because Texas buys so many textbooks, the changes Religious Right activists make in books inevitably affect children in other parts of the country. Rather than produce separate editions, many textbook publishers simply market the same texts to other states.

In 1995, legislators in Texas sought to defuse the controversy by passing a law restricting the power of the State Board of Education to reject textbooks. The law states in part that books may be rejected only for containing factual errors. But the measure has failed to stop pressure from Religious Right groups, who now simply insist that passages not to their liking are equivalent to factual errors.

Most recently, Religious Right groups took aim at a history book titled Out of Many: A History of the American People, published by Prentice Hall. The groups attacked the book mainly for passages that discussed prostitution in the Old West, Margaret Sanger's early birth control crusade and the struggle for gay rights.

Out of Many is a highly regarded textbook that has won high praise. One reviewer, Henry E. Stamm of Dartmouth College wrote, "Students generally give grudging praise to the work; the special care taken with women, African Americans, and Native Americans seems especially effective. Students often report that they enjoyed the 'stories' that begin each chapter. In essence, many students get 'hooked' by the narrative, which is high acclaim indeed for a history survey text!"

Texas law mandates that textbooks emphasize democracy, patriotism and the free-enterprise system, language that the Religious Right also exploits to reject any text that uses a "warts and all" approach to history.

"I don't mean that we should sweep things under the rug, but that children should see the hope and the good things about America," Peggy Venable of the Texas Chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, one of the groups scrutinizing the textbooks, told The New York Times.

But critics of the Religious Right say censorship is exactly what the groups want or, in other cases, a rewriting of history. Some Religious Right organizations have complained, for example, that the history textbooks fail to discuss the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, an assertion that mainstream historians say is at odds with the evidence.

Advocates of church-state separation are fighting back. In August, Charlotte Coffelt, a member of Americans United's Board of Trustees and Houston resident, delivered testimony before the State Board of Education, refuting charges by the right-wing coalition.

"As you know, some of our fellow citizens promote their belief that our nation's founders intended for the U.S.A. to be a 'Christian nation,'" Coffelt told the board. "Many of our nation's founders came to our shores to escape religious persecution within their native countries. But America has become the most religiously diverse nation in the world, with citizens professing at least 2,000 varieties of belief systems. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was created to protect religious diversity and tolerance among peoples."

Continued Coffelt, "I challenge you to bring forth a few of Texas' constitutional authorities who can provide a true scholar's interpretation of the First Amendment and how important it is that it be accurately represented in schoolchildren's textbooks."

Ala. Religious Leaders Oppose Judge Moore's Commandments Display

A diverse array of state and national religious leaders has come out in opposition to Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore's display of the Ten Commandments at the state's highest court.

In a legal brief filed Aug. 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, three national organizations and 42 state clergy from various denominations objected to Moore's government-sponsored religious monument at the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery.

Americans United, which is cosponsoring a federal court challenge to Moore's display, hailed the filing.

"Religion doesn't need government's help, and most clergy know that," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This brief demonstrates that many thoughtful religious leaders in Alabama disagree strongly with Justice Moore's misguided religious crusade."

Lynn continued, "These religious leaders understand that the Ten Commandments belong in our houses of worship, not our houses of law."

The brief was filed by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes religious liberty. Alabama signers include clergy from the Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ and Jewish traditions.

In addition to the Baptist Joint Committee, two other national organizations also signed the brief: the Anti-Defamation League and The Interfaith Alliance.

The religious leaders' brief asserts, "By displaying the Ten Commandments in the State Judicial Building, Justice Moore has usurped the role of private individuals and faith communities in shaping their own religious practices and views. Government efforts to promote religion drain religious practices and beliefs of their spiritual significance, thereby deprecating, rather than revitalizing, religion.

"Rather than strengthening religion," the brief concludes, "the display undermines religious interests: it shows disrespect for the freedom of conscience, tends to degrade and corrupt religion, and engenders social conflict and religious discord. Religion has thrived in the United States precisely because it has been left to the private sphere. Only by preserving this healthy separation between church and state will religion continue to prosper."

Moore was elected chief justice in 2000 after gaining notoriety for his refusal to remove a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque from his courtroom in Etowah County where he served as a local judge. On the evening of July 31, 2001, Moore waited until the Alabama Judicial Building was empty and then helped workers bring a two-and-a-half-ton granite sculpture of the Ten Commandments into the lobby.

Americans United and the Alabama affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against Moore arguing that the display violates the separation of church and state. The Glassroth v. Moore case is expected to go to trial this month.

Ga. County Considers Policy To Allow Teaching Creationism

Members of the Cobb County, Ga., School Board are considering a policy that would allow science teachers to offer instruction in "intelligent design" and "scientific creationism" in class.

The county, just north of Atlanta, has been the site of several Religious Right-provoked "culture wars" in recent years. The policy under consideration in the most recent flap, Americans United asserts, is a thinly veiled effort to bring religion into public school science classrooms.

On Aug. 22, Cobb County's school board voted unanimously to spend 30 days studying a proposal to allow public school teachers to discuss "disputed views of academic subjects," including human origins. Supporters of the proposal have said the policy would allow science classes to introduce creationism into the curriculum.

The issue has been simmering in the county for some time. Earlier this year, more than 2,000 residents signed a petition attacking new science books used in the county schools because the texts teach evolution. Parents packed the meeting, many offering testimony for or against the proposal.

One parent, Adele Marticke, told The New York Times, "The loud voices of the extremist few have drowned out the voice of the moderate majority."

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the proposal raises constitutional concerns and should be voted down.

"Any proposal encouraging public school teachers to offer religious lessons is wholly inconsistent with the separation of church and state," Lynn said. "The law requires public schools to remain neutral on religion. Injecting creationism into science classes isn't religious neutrality.

Continued Lynn, "Sunday School lessons masquerading as science have no place in public school classrooms. This proposal raises serious legal questions and should be swiftly rejected."

Shortly before the vote, Americans United's Legal Department contacted Cobb County officials about the proposed policy. AU attorneys explained that federal courts have consistently ruled that public schools cannot engage in religious indoctrination and warned that board approval of the policy may spark a lawsuit.

"One board member described 'scientific creationism' as the belief that life has evolved in a purposeful way," observed the AU letter. "'Intelligent design' posits that living things were designed by a purposeful being. In reality, both concepts are indistinct from creationism. We are writing to inform you that it is grossly unconstitutional to permit the teaching of creationism, by whatever name, in public schools and to ask that you decline to approve any policy that would allow this to occur."

AU noted that the Supreme Court has tackled this issue several times. The high court struck down an Arkansas law banning lessons on evolution in 1968. Justices later ruled against the strategy of giving creationism equal time with evolution in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision.

The new proposal is only the latest wrinkle in a long-running battle over the teaching of evolution in Cobb County's public schools. Earlier this year, school board officials approved a measure to insert "disclaimers" in science textbooks, which told students that evolutionary biology should not be considered fact. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently challenging the use of that disclaimer in court.

"School officials do a disservice to the young people in Cobb County public schools by trying to endorse religion," said AU's Lynn. "These needless controversies distract attention from what should be the district's principal goal providing these students with the best education possible."

Despite definitive court rulings on the issue, the Religious Right is engaged in a national crusade to inject creationism or its latest variant, "intelligent design" into public school curricula. This year, for example, the Ohio Board of Education considered a proposal to introduce creationist principles into its state curriculum. In addition, AU persuaded education officials in Joes, Colo., to drop a proposal to introduce creationism into its science classes in April.

Fla. Christian Coalition Leader Arrested In Ballot Signature Scam

The head of the Miami-Dade County Christian Coalition was arrested Aug. 16, charged with fraudulently obtaining a signature on a petition to overturn the county's gay rights law.

Anthony Verdugo, 40, and two others were arrested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after a prolonged investigation. Verdugo was charged with one count of falsely swearing that he had witnessed someone signing a petition calling for a referendum vote on the law's repeal. If found guilty of the charge, a third-degree felony, Verdugo could face five years in prison.

Two others were also arrested Ralph Patterson, a 76-year-old volunteer for the repeal effort who was accused of unlawful use of a notary commission for allegedly notarizing his own signature, reported the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Another volunteer, Christian Montoya, 17, was arrested and charged with seven counts of falsely swearing to have witnessed signatures.

State law requires that petition signature collectors personally witness each signature they collect and certify that it is legitimate. The law is designed to prevent fraud in ballot referenda and to make certain that questions that end up on the ballot have the support of a certain percentage of the voters.

Verdugo's attorney, Rosa Armesto, later claimed that the arrest was part of a plot.

"Christians are being persecuted in this town by the homosexual mafia who contribute money to the campaign coffers of officials," Armesto said. "Why are they so afraid of letting the citizens of Dade County vote? It's very curious that they've made these arrests just before the election."

Special prosecutors had been looking into whether the pro-repeal forces, Take Back Miami-Dade, had fraudulently obtained signatures on the petition that put the question on the ballot. No to Discrimination/SAVE Dade, an anti-repeal group, found 2,500 duplicate signatures on petitions and said at least 400 signatures appeared to have been forged.

A separate investigation by the Miami Herald uncovered numerous residents who said their signatures were either forged on the petitions or added several times. One man, Oscar Hernandez of Hialeah, said he signed the petition once, yet his name appeared on it three times. The signature of one 93-year-old woman appeared four times.

Nathaniel Wilcox, co-chair of Take Back Miami-Dade, told the Herald that opponents of the measure had forged the bogus signatures to make trouble. But the Herald found examples of people who didn't even agree with the repeal effort yet whose name appeared on signatures.

The signature of Margaret Marshall, wife of a staffer with the state American Civil Liberties Union, appeared on one petition even though Marshall said she declined to sign a petition when asked to do so after voting in the 2000 primary election. Marshall said the petition circulator probably got her name and other personal information from voter rolls and forged her signature.

On Sept. 11, voters went to the polls and rejected the Christian Coalition overture, voting 53 percent to 47 percent to retain the gay rights ordinance.

In other news about the Religious Right:

 The number of Americans who say they have no religion doubled during the 1990s, and two sociologists believe that phenomenon may have been hastened by theological liberals and moderates angry over Religious Right political activism.

Michael Hout and Claude Fischer of the University of California at Berkeley recently analyzed data from numerous public opinion surveys. They found that the number of Americans who say they have no religious preference rose from 7 percent to 14 percent within a decade.

Hout and Fischer found that many of the respondents who listed "no preference" retain religious belief yet elect not to join a house of worship. Their study found a link between having no religious preference and being skeptical of conservatives' predilection to blend politics and religion. They speculate that many of the people who say "no preference" left churches because of the assumption that many religious groups were involved in conservative politics.

 Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.), a favorite of the Christian Coalition, is hard at work in Congress trying to secure a big tax break for liquor distillers.

Lewis, who received a rating of 100 percent on the Coalition's Congressional Scorecards for 1998 and 2000, is a Baptist minister who does not drink but he does have several bourbon distilleries in his district. His proposal, which is cosponsored by about 100 other members of Congress, is being heavily promoted by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Members of the Distilled Spirits Council, a powerful lobby in Washington, have become alarmed because lately, legislators in many states, facing budget deficits, have proposed raising so-called "sin taxes," especially those on liquor and cigarettes. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that studies political donations, the liquor industry is among Lewis' top donors.

Readers of Charisma magazine, a publication ostensibly devoted to Pentecostal forms of Christianity, got something other than religion in their August issue: political endorsements. Stephen Strang, founder and publisher of Charisma, advised Florida residents to vote for Jeb Bush for governor and Katherine Harris and John Mica for Congress. (The magazine is based in Mica's central Florida district.)

'Re-discovered' Jefferson Letter Shows Support For Religious Liberty

A recently re-discovered 201-year-old letter from Thomas Jefferson underscores the third president's strong support for religious liberty.

The missive, dated July 2, 1801, was sent to the Delaware Baptist Association; it was written in response to a note the association had sent to Jefferson expressing support for his strong stands in favor of religious freedom and congratulating him on his election to the presidency.

Baptists were an often-persecuted minority at that time, and they were strong believers in church-state separation. Many were pleased to see Jefferson win the election of 1800 and wrote to express their appreciation for Jefferson's long history of supporting religious liberty.

Wrote Jefferson in reply, "I join you, fellow citizens, in rendering the tribute of thankfulness to the Almighty ruler, who, in the order of his providence, hath willed that the human mind shall be free in this portion of the globe; that society shall here know that the limit of it's [sic] rightful power is the enforcement of social conduct; while the right to question the religious principles producing that conduct is beyond their cognisance."

Jefferson goes on to write, "I rejoice too with you in the happy consequences of our revolution, namely our separation from the bloody horrors which are depopulating the other quarters of the earth, the establishment here of liberty, equality of social rights, exclusion of unequal privileges civil & religious, & of the usurping domination of one sect over another."

The five-paragraph letter was found in a box March 23 at Hollingsworth House, a Colonial-era home in Elkton, Md. The house is currently being converted into a museum, and volunteer Martha Alford came across the letter while searching through the box during a clean-up. A draft of the Baptist letter to Jefferson was also found.

The Historic Elk Landing Foundation, which is restoring the house, asked a document specialist at Christie's auction house to authenticate the Jefferson reply. The expert, Chris Coover, said the process did not take long.

"Essentially, I knew it at a glance," Coover said. "The handwriting is unmistakable."

The letter was not completely unknown before the find. The Library of Congress has a copy Jefferson made by pressing another piece of paper over the letter while the ink was still wet. But that version, known as a "press copy," is so light as to be virtually unreadable.

The Foundation plans to display the letter at the house at some point. For now, it is being stored in a safe-deposit box.

New York Bishops Seek Aid For Religious Schools

New York's Roman Catholic bishops have issued a pastoral statement demanding taxpayer subsidies for tuition and other needs for the 800 religious academies run by the church.

Facing financial difficulties that have led many ministry schools to cut back on teachers and programs, Catholic schools in New York are now aggressively pushing for school voucher aid, transportation subsidies, computers and other classroom materials and even publicly financed assistance in training and recruiting Catholic schoolteachers. The plea was issued formally in a pastoral statement on Sept. 1, to be distributed to the parents of 300,000 Catholic school students.

The bishops' demands, however, face tough sledding. New York, like many states, is facing a serious budget shortfall. Even lawmakers sympathetic to the desires of the church's schools would have difficulty finding the funds to support a public school system while subsidizing hundreds of religious institutions.

More importantly, New York's state constitution strictly prohibits the private school aid the bishops seek. Article 11 of the state's constitution says that no public money can be used "directly or indirectly, in aid or maintenance" of any school that is "wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught."

Yoga Class Sparks Trouble In Colorado Public School

A Colorado elementary school is embroiled in a controversy over whether yoga is a religion and whether the school can legally include the exercise program as part of the school's activities.

The Aspen Elementary School had intended to implement a "Yoga Ed" program this school year for rambunctious children. The idea was the practice of stretching and deep-breathing exercises might calm some kids down and help them focus on schoolwork.

Several parents didn't agree with the policy, complaining that yoga deals with religious and spiritual elements inappropriate for public elementary school children.

School officials believe the concerns are unfounded.

"I wish I could just change the name of this to 'stretching and breathing' and call it good," school principal Barb Pitchford, who doesn't practice yoga, told the Denver Post.

One of the complaining parents, however, sees a church-state issue that needs attention.

"My understanding of yoga is that you can't separate religion out of it," Mary Blankenship, the mother of a second-grade student at Aspen Elementary, said. "If you introduce a child to this at a young, vulnerable age, you could cause them to want to practice it later. If it's kind of a Hindu cult-like thing, I don't want my child exposed to that."

If Aspen does end up with the "Yoga Ed" program, it will be joining public schools in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio, who have already adopted the program.