SBOE Pierces Church-State Wall

Former State Board of Education members Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar at a meeting in March 2010.
Former State Board of Education members Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar at a meeting in March 2010.

In a compromise amendment that nonetheless pleased State Board of Education social conservatives — and hewed closely to their preferred language — members this afternoon passed an amendment to the state's socials studies standards calling for students to "contrast" the intent of the nation's founders with the notion of separation of church and state. 

It reads: “Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and compare and contrast this to the phrase, 'separation of church and state.'”

The motion came from Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, a moderate Republican who worked on the language with arch-conservative former chair Don McLeroy, R-Bryan. With the exception of the adding the word "compare" along with "contrast" and including some verbiage directly from the First Amendment, what the board passed mirrored what McLeroy had originally proposed.

In a draft amendment he released last week, McLeroy wrote: "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 language of the actual amendment, while subtle, hinges on the word "contrast" in both McLeroy's draft and the language finally adopted, with its implication that the intent of the writers of the constitution was different that the modern legal interpretation of the separation doctrine. Some social conservatives on the board — many of whom have openly referred to the church-state wall as a "myth" perpetuated by liberal activists on the U.S. Supreme Court — hold personal beliefs far stronger. Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, launched into a prayer at the opening of the meeting in which addressed the subject directly.

"I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses,” Dunbar said. "“Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England … the same objective is present — a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”

The amendment, despite all the debate and consternation leading up to it, passed quickly, after only a brief debate. Just three members voted against it, all Democrats: Mavis Knight, of Dallas; Mary Helen Berlanga, of Corpus Christi, and Rene Nunez, of El Paso. Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, was out of the room and did not vote. 

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