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TribBlog: Islamapalooza

After a spring filled with bitter culture wars over textbooks, the Texas State Board of Education reopened the fight today with — what else? — a fight over alleged "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian" bias in Texas textbooks.

State Board of Education member Bob Craig,  R-Lubbock,  at the board's hearing Sept. 24, 2010.

After a spring filled with bitter culture wars over textbooks, the Texas State Board of Education reopened the fight today with — what else? — a fight over alleged "pro-Islamic/anti-Christian" bias in Texas textbooks.   

A measure decrying such bias would pass 7-6 in a largely party line vote, but not before some four hours of debate — on a non-binding resolution that ultimately has no force of law. It merely sends a message to textbook publishers, members say.

Randy Rives — a former Ector County school board member and a losing candidate in recent SBOE elections — authored the resolution, which purports lay out how current textbooks favor Islamic culture over Christian culture. Indeed, it counts them line by line, calling out one book for "devoting 120 student text lines to Christian beliefs, practices, and holy writings but 248 (more than twice as many) to those of Islam; and dwelling for 27 student text lines on Crusaders' massacre of Muslims at Jerusalem in 1099 yet censoring Muslims' massacres of Christians there in 1244 and at Antioch in 1268, implying that Christian brutality and Muslim loss of life are significant but Islamic cruelty and Christian deaths are not."

Terri Leo, R-Spring, said that her decision was influenced by a 2003 world civilizations textbook. “I don’t know how you can write a world civilizations book and basically mention Christianity two times and Judaism once, and both are in negative lights, especially Judaism doesn’t even get a sentence — It gets a picture of Israel, on a map, highlighted in red, and it says, ‘Israeli-occupied territory,'" she said.

Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, had a simpler analysis: "This makes us look cuckoo."

Though board members discussed the matter at great length, only about a dozen audience members signed up to speak. Mary Bruner, who has been a teacher, counselor and diagnostician in Texas public schools, said that political correctness in education has gone too far. “In our attempt to teach tolerance and acceptance of those who are different, I think we are now reaching the point where we’re almost teaching that Christians should be ashamed of their religion," she said. "By ignoring the influence of Christianity on early American history, our children are not being taught about morality, and morality is necessary in a Democratic Republic. That is what our founding fathers taught us."

Mary Parks of Reno, Texas, the mother of five children and grandmother to six grandchildren, said she thinks that religious freedoms are being ignored in public schools today. “I noticed that our freedoms and liberties were being assaulted in the name of multiculturalism," she said. 

The battle over social studies textbooks has gone on for much of the year. Conservative members of the board have gained national media attention for their attempts to what they have said are liberal distortions of history. The textbooks allegedly containing the pro-Islamic bias, approved in 2002 by an SBOE with a Republican majority, are no longer used in classrooms. The past textbooks were referenced because SBOE rules prohibit the consideration of any resolution pertaining to current textbooks.

The vote was recorded after Bob Craig, R-Lubbock, offered three amendments that were all defeated by 6-7 votes. One amendment would have stricken the language referring to Islam and Christianity, but would have kept the plea for religious balance in textbooks intact. The other two amendments would have suspended a vote until the Texas Education Agency could verify the information cited in the resolution.

Voting for the resolution were all seven members of the board's bloc of social conservatives: Leo; Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas; Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio; David Bradley, R-Beaumont; Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands; Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond; and Don McLeroy, R-College Station. Voting against the measure were the three Democrats who were present — Mavis Knight, of Dallas; Lawrence Allen, of Fresno; and Rick Agosto, of San Antonio — along with Republicans Craig; Geraldine Miller, of Dallas; and Pat Hardy, of Weatherford. Democrats Mary Helen Berlanga, of Corpus Christi, and Rene Nunez, of El Paso, were absent for the vote.

This wasn’t the first battle between Craig and the resolution's author — Craig handily defeated Rives in the Republican primary in March.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that aims to challenge the religious right, called the resolution “unnecessarily divisive.”

“At a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country has reached a fever pitch, you are considering a resolution that uses words such as ‘tainted,’ ‘false editorial stereotypes’ and ‘whitewashes’ in describing the content of books in Texas schools," Miller said. “It’s hard not to conclude that the misleading claims in this resolution are either based on ignorance of what is in the textbooks or, on the other hand, are an example of fear-mongering and playing politics.”

At one point during the debate, the board returned to the well-worn topic of church and state. When Bradley and Mercer asked to identify where the words “separation of church and state” could be found in the Constitution, Frank Knaack of the American Civil Liberties Union shot back, “it probably is alongside right to privacy, separation of powers, other understood concepts from the Constitution that do not exist in those words in the Constitution.”

Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affairs for the Liberty Institute, a conservative advocacy group, said that Miller and the ACLU are playing politics and distorting the resolution.

“Our organization just applauds the conservative majority of the state board of education members that voted on this for standing strong, for standing up to the ACLU that wanted to put the resolution down, and really just doing something that is common sense and balanced,” Saenz said.

At the end of the meeting, it was pointed out to the SBOE that language in the resolution that referred to the Dubai Royal Family becoming a major stakeholder in publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was false. The SBOE re-voted on the resolution without the language, and it passed again, this time by a 7-5 vote with Allen absent.

[Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct the description of the vote totals.]

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