Texas School Board Fights Church-State Separation

Among the many decrying discrimination of all stripes at Wednesday’s public hearing of the State Board of Education was Terry Ann Kelly, who came to protest the persecution of a kindergarten girl reprimanded for singing “Jesus Loves Me” and an older girl yanked from the school talent show for interpretative dance that included a Christian cross.

The stories from the homemaker and mother of five from Grapevine and provided the underpinnings for a church-state showdown set for today’s meeting in Austin, when board members will again dive into hot-button amendments to Texas’ social studies curriculum. The SBOE's seven-member social conservative bloc is expected to launch attacks on the church-state “wall” as among the last of hundreds of changes to the standards, which could provide the outline for tests and textbooks years into the future. The board expects to take a final vote on the entire curriculum on Friday. Though Wednesday featured many calls from opponents to delay final adoption of the standards — including one from former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige — all signs indicated board conservatives had the will and the votes to move forward.

In contrast to the hysterics of some speakers and advocates, Kelly spoke cautiously and thoughtfully on the complexities of her objections to some modern interpretations of the church-state concept: that religion should be barred entirely, or almost entirely, from the public square and certainly from the schoolhouse. Her views resemble those of many conservative SBOE members, who believe the doctrine of separation, never laid out in the Constitution, has grown into a sprawling distortion of the Founding Fathers’ original intent and thus trampled on the very religious freedoms guaranteed in the same amendment. As Kelly and many other conservatives have put it, freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

So if a little girl in a public school classroom responds with “Jesus Loves Me” when a teacher asks students to sing their favorite song, the government shouldn’t stand in the way, Terry told the board Wednesday. Nor should a religious expression be ejected from a talent show, as happened about a month ago in Grapevine, she said. “The good news is the current principal saw the light — well, not literally saw the light, or maybe he did — and the student was able to perform and express herself,” Terry said.

In an interview after her remarks, Terry said she faced another issue with a parent objection to a student-led Christian group, Students Standing Strong. “One father was very upset that it was on campus,” she said. “He was a Jewish man, and I told him it would be great if your kids started a student-led Jewish group.”

 

To Kelly, the matter comes down to the simple protection of her children, the way she wants to raise them, and the way they are treated in a world she understands less and less as she gets older.

“My kids are raised in a very different world from the one I was raised,” she said in an interview after addressing the board. “I come from a conservative worldview, and I just feel like secular culture today batters kids on every front. The moral values I teach at home are being blasted from every other area of life. … I just feel like my kids are made to feel like second-class citizens.”

What do they actually believe?

The board’s social conservatives have spent large portions of time in meetings complaining about being misconstrued by the liberal media and advocacy groups. So they and their like-minded allies on Tuesday sought to lay out their case for challenging church-state separation — confirmed in myriad high-court decisions they abhor — by casting the issue as one of persecutions against Christians. Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the right-leaning Liberty Institute, told tales of children being admonished for praying privately over their school lunches and a Houston student’s Bible getting confiscated. Asked by a board member why church-state separation advocates seemed to be especially sensitive to religious expressions in schoolhouses, he responded, “It may be because they children are young and impressionable. But that works both ways. They are impressionable to a ban on religious expression.”

Board members' views on church and state, and of America as a Christian nation (or at least one “founded on Christian principles,” as members often have said) are difficult to parse. Do they believe the government should merely allow religious expression, as does Kelly? Or do they actually want the church much more deeply enmeshed in public affairs and public schooling.

The amendment expected to come up for consideration today comes from former SBOE chair and outgoing board member Don McLeroy, R-Bryan. It would instruct students to “contrast the Founders’ intent relative to the wording of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, with the popular term, ‘Separation of Church and State.'”

The word “contrast” is a clear signal that McLeroy and those he expects to vote with him believe the founders never intended such separation at all. But divining their intent — and what effect it might have on future classroom teaching — gets more difficult from there. McLeroy and fellow social conservative David Bradley, R-Beaumont, both said in interviews they merely want to open discussion on the view that religion should not be barred entirely from public spaces. Both took pains to explain they don’t believe should government mandate any particular religion, in schoolhouses or elsewhere. As a particularly egregious example of an unconstitutional overreach, McLeroy talked of how the saying of grace was nixed at a Savannah, Ga., senior center because the food happened to be bought with federal tax dollars. “Because a can of beans came from the federal government, this old lady can’t bless her food?” McLeroy asked. “That’s not the establishment of religion, but it is prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Yet Bradley revels in the fact that many government bodies — including his own state board — open sessions with a prayer, and that the U.S. Supreme Court building includes carvings of the Ten Commandments, a clear sign to him modern notions of separation contrast sharply with original intent. At the Wednesday hearing, Bradley called the separation of church and state a “myth.” In an earlier interview, Bradley said the group merely wanted students to be taught that the public square, whether local, state or federal, should be open “as an accommodation” to religious groups. “If a religious group walks up and asks to use a civic center or a park pavilion, absolutely they should be able to use it. … It’s not the exclusion of religion; it’s freedom of religion.”

 

Ironically, Bradley’s quote sounds almost identical to one from his ideological nemesis Dan Quinn, the communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that scrutinizes the SBOE for religious extremism. (Bradley is fond of calling the group the “Texas Anti-Freedom Network.”) Said Quinn: “Our position is that public schools should respect religious freedom for everybody. If a child wants to pray or wear religious clothing, that’s her choice."

“Scare stories” of children improperly reprimanded for personal prayer are a public relations wedge for an agenda a lot farther out on the religious fringe, Quinn said. “That’s not the issue — the courts already allow personal expressions of faith — and it doesn’t require gutting the basic freedom of religion by allowing the promotion of religion in the school house," Quinn said. "There’s a track record by some members of pushing it as far as they can. We saw this with the creationism argument in the science standards debate. … They are going to do what they can to promote a particular religious perspective — above all others — in classrooms. They are careful and deliberate in how they do it, but they definitely do it. And if you don’t share their particular religious perspective, they brand you leftist radical who hates Christians, and it goes downhill from there.”

As an example of the subtle maneuvering, Quinn pointed to a little-noticed edit in the U.S government standards, which replaced a reference to “natural law and natural rights" with “the law of nature and nature’s God.”

"God’s kingdom on earth"

Bradley’s and McLeroy’s explanations may help illuminate the motivation for the amendment currently on the table, but they don’t explain why board social conservatives shot down a previous amendment from member Mavis Knight, R-Dallas, seeking to emphasize constitutional protections against government meddling in religion. It read: “Examine the reasons why the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

All 10 board Republicans — including the three relative moderates — voted against that statement, which would likely be considered uncontroversial in the vast majority of America. Indeed, Bradley and McLeroy said separately, in interviews, that they, too, object to government favoring one religion over another.

Asked about the rationale for rejecting the amendment, Bradley wrote in e-mails: “It is apparent that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is being used improperly in the public conversation,” referencing stories of children being admonished for private prayers. “We need to address the misuse of language directly. Ms. Knight’s language is lacking and insufficient. … Nor does her language address the principle of the practice of religion in the public square (or schoolroom).”

If Bradley is deliberate and politically saavy, some others in the conservative bloc are far more blunt in their visions of a thorough blending of church and state. Indeed, board member Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, essentially writes in her book, One Nation Under God, that the vision of the Founding Fathers was divinely inspired, and thus church and state are forever intertwined — whether the socialist and communist forces in modern America like it or not — and can never be torn asunder. She writes that she hopes readers of the book “would fervently grasp the biblical function of civil government as it was envisioned by the founding fathers. Such understanding will birth the vision of … enacting the principles of God’s kingdom on earth.”

America’s founders, she said, did not so much create constitutional values as discover and implement them after they were designed, quite literally, on high. The book uses the exact phrase she and her allies voted into the government curriculum — “the law of nature and nature’s God" — though in this case capitalized as one would a deity. She writes: “Our founding fathers did not concoct a set of values and principles on which to base the Constitution; rather they were the first to fully implement those standards once generally accepted as the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. The principles espoused within these Laws of Nature find their source in divine law. Consequently, the underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents. Hence, the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers at the time of our government’s inception comes from a biblical worldview. This is not a statement of intolerance. It is a statement of fact. I am aware that such a politically incorrect statement will be characterized as that of a narrow-mind, rightwing zealot. However, truth is truth and cannot be altered by social acceptance or belief.”

Though Dunbar views the First Amendment as preventing rather than ratifying the separation of church and state, she does find in its text the separation of state from something else entirely: Call it the doctrine of Separation of State and Poor People. “The biblical worldview, or the mindset that is based upon a clear application of scripture, understands that the civil government is to have no involvement or jurisdiction over the realm of benevolence or aid to the poor. First of all, a heart-felt conviction or desire to aid our fellow man is one governed by the First Amendment as our free exercise of our personal rights. … [G]overnment has no right to coerce aid contrary to one’s conscience.”

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