Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!


Hobby Lobby-ing for Religion in Public Schools

Has God been kicked out of America’s public schools?  The most common answer among religious conservatives is yes.  But a better answer might be that God has been kicked out as a host, but earnestly welcomed in as a guest.

A new Bible curriculum for public schools hopes to reverse that trend.  As we’ve reported, Steve Green, conservative evangelical leader of the Hobby Lobby store chain, has funded a new Bible curriculum for public schools.  A recent study from the Texas Freedom Network insists that Green’s curriculum crosses the line.

Hobby Lobby's Promotional Image for Its New Bible Curriculum

Hobby Lobby’s Promotional Image for Its New Bible Curriculum

The study of the Hobby Lobby Bible curriculum was undertaken by Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University.  Chancey is a religious-studies professor with considerable expertise in the question of religion in public schools.

As Chancey reviews, it is entirely permissible for public school students to read and study the Bible.  The US Supreme Court has encouraged such study.  The problem comes when public schools attempt to teach a certain interpretation of the Bible.  In short, public schools can and should teach students about religion.  But they err when they teach students religion.

Chancey asks if the Hobby-Lobby-funded curriculum, The Book: The Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact, keeps on the constitutional side of this divide.  For several reasons, Chancey concludes that it does not.

First, though Chancey notes this is not conclusive, Steve Green himself has publicly stated his intention to spread his religion.  As Chancey notes, Green makes no secret of his evangelical ambition.

Simply because Green wants to spread his faith, of course, does not mean that this Bible curriculum tries to do so.  But Chancey argues that the Bible curriculum repeatedly insists or implies that a certain evangelical-friendly interpretation of the Bible is correct.  For one thing, the Bible curriculum suggests that the Bible is historically accurate.  The authors tell readers

that the Bible, especially when viewed alongside other historical information, is a reliable historical source.

Also, Chancey argues that the curriculum privileges a Protestant vision of the Bible.  And the curriculum suggests that the real story of the Bible is salvation, a narrative that points unerringly toward the salvation offered by Jesus Christ in the Gospels.

As Chancey concludes,

The combination of a religious purpose, pervading sectarian bias, and frequent factual errors demonstrates that this curriculum has a long way to go before being appropriate for a public school classroom.

What’s next?  Since a public school district in Mustang, Oklahoma has already adopted this Bible curriculum, it appears we are headed for another lawsuit.  If Chancey’s review of this curriculum is accurate, my guess is that this material will be ruled unconstitutional for public schools.


Should Liberals Teach the Bible in Public Schools?

Usually, when we hear pleas for the teaching of the Bible in America’s public schools, they come from conservative evangelical Protestant activists.  Today, though, liberal scholar and friend of ILYBYGTH Mark Chancey makes the liberal case for teaching the Bible in public schools.  Do you buy it?

Chancey attracted attention a while back for his study of the ways public schools in Texas teach the Bible.  Too many of them, he concluded, teach a sectarian theology.  Too many public school programs, he found, don’t teach students about the Bible, but rather try to tell students what to believe about the Bible.

Recently in the pages of Religion & Politics Chancey outlined the ways the Bible should be taught.  He offered an eight-point outline of the ways good public-school Bible programs work.  Everyone interested in religion, he argues, should staunchly support the teaching of the Bible in America’s public schools.  To do it right, though, schools need to learn from the successful Texas programs he saw in his review.

What do good public-school Bible programs do?  Here are Chancey’s pointers:

  • They relied on resources informed by a broad range of biblical scholarship, not just the scholars of one particular religious community.

  • They informed students about the unique features of the Bibles of different traditions (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox).

  • They were intentional in exposing students to biblical translations associated with different religious traditions.

  • They were sensitive to the different ways various religious communities have interpreted particular passages and did not present one tradition’s interpretation as normative.

  • They recognized the importance of biblical texts as ancient historical sources without lapsing into a tone of assumed historicity.

  • They discussed the Bible’s moral and theological claims without presenting them as authoritative for the students.

  • They recognized that the Bible is not a science textbook.

  • They treated Judaism as a religion in its own right and not merely as the foil or background for Christianity.

I never learned squat about the Bible in all my public-school experience.  Part of that might be geography.  I grew up in the liberal heartlands of suburban Boston.  Chancey’s study focuses on the Bible teaching in Texas.  I know there are plenty of conservative religious folks in Boston, but the history and culture of Boston’s public schools differs in enormous ways from that of other regions.

I agree wholeheartedly that educated people should know about the Bible.  But here is a question for ILYBYGTH readers: should liberals push for more Chancey-style Bible education?  That is, should liberals encourage their local public schools to teach about the Bible, even as they don’t try to cram Biblical Christianity down students’ throats?  Or is that too eerily similar to mainstream scientists who might agree to teach “problems with evolution” in public-school science classes?

In other words, we might all agree that students should learn the real scientific debates about evolution, just as we might agree that students should learn about the Bible.  But the history of controversy over the teaching of evolution—just as with the history of controversy over the teaching of the Bible—has made it difficult if not impossible for liberals to support the teaching of scientific debates over evolution.  Too often, because of political meanings, teaching the “debate” over evolution has been code for teaching religious ideas in science classes.  Is the same true here?  If public schools attempt to teach about the Bible, would it tend to devolve into cramming religion down students’ throats?

Professor Chancey says no.


Guns and Bibles

School needs more of both.  At least according to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

In their continuing series of year-end quotations from conservatives, the Texas Freedom Network Insider publicized this gem from Abbott’s Facebook page:

Source: Greg Abbott

Source: Greg Abbott

For those of us who are trying to understand the intellectual world of educational conservatism, Abbott’s plea is a good place to start.  The give-and-take of comments that accompanied this eye-catching poster sums up lots of the perennial debate in school culture wars.

As one back-and-forth had it,

Person 1: Satan is having a POW-WOW in our country right now….the Anti-Christ is alive and well! WAKE UP AMERICA!!!

Person 2: Good they should not be taught in school. Bible is mythology and learn to shoot at a gun range.

Abbott’s call for more Bibles and more guns in schools may seem shocking to progressives like me, but it seems many conservatives want both.  Especially after each school shooting, we hear calls for more armed guards to protect the innocent.  And of course there is never any lack of tumult for increasing the use of Bibles with America’s public school students.

Here’s a question for all you readers out there: For those agree with Abbott’s call for more Bibles and guns in schools, which should come first?  That is, if you had to pick, which would improve schools more, guns or Bibles?

And for those who are shocked with Abbott’s post, here’s a very different question: what are you more scared of, more Bibles or more guns in public schools?


Year-End Quiz: Do You Speak Conservative?

It’s the end-of-the-year rush for every sort of retrospective.  Can you take the ILYBYGTH challenge?

Thanks to the folks at the Texas Freedom Network Insider, we have several lists of the most contumacious quotes from America’s conservative punditry.  One list describes the year in creationist/no-climate-change quotations, one from the anti-Islam contingent, and one from the continuing “War on Christmas” campaign.

Here’s the idea: The Insider compiled these quotes as a demonstration of the intellectual outrageousness of contemporary conservatism.  Here at ILYBYGTH, we have a different goal: Can we understand what these conservatives meant?  Can we see the point each speaker hoped to make?  Of course, we know that some quotations are just plain dumb.  This is not only true for conservatives, of course.  Every sort of political blabbermouth can say stupid stuff.  But in some cases, it seems that the quips that seem the most outrageous to liberal secular folks like me actually represent a coherent, compelling conservative worldview.

If you call yourself a conservative, can you explain these quotations in terms that might seem less outrageous to non-conservatives?

Or, if you think of yourself as non-conservative, can you try to put yourself deep enough into the conservative mindset to understand what each speaker was getting at?

So put down the pumpkin pie, stop donning your gay apparel, and try the quiz!

Quote #1: Pat Robertson on the definition of Islam:

I hardly think to call it a religion, it’s more of — well, it’s an economic and political system with a religious veneer.

Quote #2: Rafael Cruz, father of obstreperous Tea-Party favorite Ted Cruz, on the connection between evolution and communism:

You know most Americans have their head in the sand about evolution. I’ve met so many Christians that tell me ‘well, evolution is a scientific fact.’ Baloney! I am a scientist, there is nothing scientific about evolution. But you know something, Karl Marx said it, ‘I can use the teachings of Darwin to promote communism.’ Why? Because communism, or call it socialism if you think communism is too hard a word, necessitates for government to be your god and for government to be your god they need to destroy the concept of God. That’s why communism and evolution go hand in hand. Evolution is one of the strongest tools of Marxism because if they can convince you that you came from a monkey, it’s much easier to convince you that God does not exist.

Quote #3: Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, complaining about efforts to imply that Santa was not white:

Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?

How bout it?  Can you beat this year-end quiz?  What did these conservatives mean?  For folks like me, can you do the mental gymnastics to put yourself into a world in which these statements make sense?  Be sure to check out the fuller lists at the Texas Freedom Network Insider.

Happy 2013 and best wishes as we slide into 2014!


What Do Conservatives Want from Public Schools?

We often hear of conservative attacks on this or that curricular item in public schools.  Conservatives want sex ed out.  They want evolution out.  They block this and they block that.

But many conservative school activists also have a strong idea of the kinds of things they want IN public schools.  The Texas Freedom Network Insider shared recently a review form from the Texas State Board of Education.  The questions asked by the SBOE tip readers squarely in the direction of conservative, traditionalist textbooks.

These Texas conservatives might take a page from their grandparents’ playbook.  In the 1920s and 1930s, conservative activists promoted their own textbooks in America’s public schools.  Tired of seeing books that bashed capitalism or traditional family values, conservatives in those decades took matters into their own hands.

The tactics from today’s conservative activists seem more modest.  As the TFN Insider points out, the review form used by the Texas SBOE asks reviewers to respond to “politically loaded” questions such as the following:

“Does this lesson present positive aspects of US heritage?”

“Does this lesson present unbiased materials and illustrations?”

“Does this lesson present generally accepted standards of behavior and lifestyles?”

“Does this lesson promote respect for citizenship and patriotism?”

“Does this lesson promote the free enterprise system?”

These questions hint at the kinds of things conservatives would like to see in textbooks and classroom materials.

Conservatives in Texas might find inspiration from their grandparents’ generation.  There’s nothing new about conservative hopes for textbooks that promote capitalism, patriotism, traditional lifestyles, and a good attitude about the USA.  But in the past, conservative activists did more than just ask reviewers to look for such things.

In the 1920s, for example, the American Legion sponsored a new textbook that promised to give students a patriotic yet accurate story of America’s roots.  When Charles Hoyne’s The Story of the American People appeared in 1926, conservatives lavished praise upon it.  The Klan-backed governor of Oregon, Walter M. Pierce, sent Hoyne a gushing letter.  Pierce called the volumes “the finest history of early America that we have ever had.”  Other conservatives agreed, calling the book a blessing to “the loyal and liberty-loving people of our country” and books that defended “the spirit of American patriotism.”

Unfortunately for Hoyne, for the American Legion, and for the conservatives who jumped to embrace the new textbooks, other readers had different opinions.  A Legion-appointed review committee found the books to be full of errors.  Writing in the pages of Harper’s, critic Harold Underwood Faulkner called the books “perverted American history.”

Image Source:

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In the end, despite high hopes for schoolbooks that would finally put a positive—but accurate—spin on all things American, the Legion withdrew their support and Hoyne’s books went nowhere.

The National Association of Manufacturers had much more success producing capitalism-friendly school materials.  Starting in 1939, NAM sent educational literature and classroom posters to roughly 17,000 classroom teachers and school administrators.  Being savvy businessmen, the leaders of the NAM wanted to know if this investment was a good one.  They wanted to know if the pamphlets made people like capitalism better.  To find out, they hired pollster Henry Abt to survey the schools.  Abt reported that most of the teachers considered the NAM-produced books “primarily as an informational service; an authoritative source of economic and social data.”  From the NAM’s perspective, nothing could be better.  Students read NAM’s paeans to capitalism and took them as authoritative social science.

Perhaps the book reviewers in Texas might take a page from the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s.  If conservatives really want to see more conservative textbooks, they might have to publish them themselves.  Of course, they’d want to watch out for the Hoyne trap.  Any classroom materials must be more like the slick, glossy pamphlets and posters distributed by the National Association of Manufacturers.  Anything else will end up just an embarrassment.




Who’s the Victim Here?

Is Craig James a bigot?  Or a victim of religious persecution?  Or both?

Can we liberals allow discrimination against bigots?  Or must we fight against discrimination in all its forms?

James has been in the news lately.  He was fired from his job as a Fox News sportscaster.  The reason?  In his run for the US Senate in 2012, James insisted that he would not support same-sex marriage.  Such marriages, James explained, were against his religion.

The Family Research Council, an organization of conservative religious activists, called the firing an example of religious persecution.  “What Fox Sports did,” the FRC warned,

is much worse than censorship. What Fox Sports is doing is demanding conformity on issues that aren’t even relevant to James’s job — then threatening his livelihood when he refuses. That’s not your garden variety viewpoint discrimination; it’s ideological terrorism. And it has to stop.

From the other side of the issue, the Texas Freedom Network defended the firing.  Intelligent people of goodwill can disagree, the TFN argued, if this is a case of religious discrimination.  But whatever we call it, the TFN blogged, it tells us something about the changing cultural climate.  “it’s worth considering,” the TFN pointed out,

that Fox Sports didn’t fire James because of his religious beliefs. They fired him because they thought his intolerant public statements about gay people would hurt their company.

I generally agree with the folks at the TFN.  However, this seems to me to be a very sketchy argument.  Would we defend a restaurant owner who refused service to ethnic minorities because he or she worried having them in the restaurant would hurt business?


Creationism’s Galileo Moment?

Creationist activist Dr. Don McLeroy said it: Give creationist kids evolution.


Because the evidence for evolution is so weak, creationist kids will be all the more convinced of the Bible’s truths.

McLeroy’s plea for evolution-heavy textbooks has left us controversy-watchers scratching our heads.  Did he really say that?

McLeroy leapt to national prominence a few years back in his role as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education.  As documented in the indispensable film The Revisionaries, McLeroy used his influence to promote a profoundly conservative vision of proper educational content for Texas schoolchildren.

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As that film demonstrated, Dr. McLeroy had a knack for confounding the easy stereotypes of “right-wing” educational politicians.  For outsiders like me, it was odd to hear such a friendly, avuncular fellow insist that Texas schoolbooks needed more creationism and less “hip-hop.”

Earlier this week, Dr. McLeroy returned to testify in front of his former colleagues on the Texas school board.  This time, McLeroy surprised everyone by insisting that the board should adopt a new set of science textbooks, books that evolutionary scientists have praised for their evolutionary content.

The Texas Freedom Network has covered these hearings thoroughly.  In general, creationists have been opposing the new science books.

Not McLeroy.

Let the children read the books, McLeroy told the board.  The evidence for evolution is so weak, he insisted, that open-minded children will be convinced of evolution’s ridiculousness.

McLeroy’s testimony was so baffling to board members that a couple of them asked for clarification.  Mrs. Mavis Knight asked him if he was being facetious.  No, McLeroy explained (around minute seven of this ten-minute clip).  He really wanted students to read these evolutionary textbooks.

“Let the students,” McLeroy explained,

the inquisitive students, the ones that are not blind, look at the evidence in these books.  They don’t even give a hint to explain the complexity….Let’s get these books to the kids; let the little young student in the classroom ask, ‘Is this all the evidence that they can give?’ That’s why I think it’ll strike a major blow to the teaching of evolution.

Board member Thomas Ratliff also struggled to understand McLeroy’s position.  Did he really want kids to read evolutionary science?

Absolutely, McLeroy explained.  “I’m hoping a young creationist . . . will sit there and say, ‘Look, is this all the evidence they have? Well maybe God didn’t use evolution to do it.’”

As a stirring conclusion, McLeroy and Ratliff had this back-and-forth:

Ratliff: “So your position is that these books prove that evolution doesn’t happen and you want us to adopt them?”

McLeroy: “No.  I did not say ‘prove.’ I just say the evidence is weak.  I don’t prove anything.  I may be wrong.”

How are we to understand this strange phenomenon?  An arch-creationist plugging for excellent, evolution-rich science textbooks?  And even concluding that he may be wrong?

One commenter on the Texas Freedom Network Insider called McLeroy simply “delusional.”

But isn’t his testimony actually fairly logical?  Consistent?  Even admirable?

After all, creationists have long insisted that evolution falls apart on its own terms.  If they really believe that, doesn’t it make sense to expose people to its ridiculous claims?  After all, if evolutionary science really depends only on prejudice and closedmindedness, as creationists often assert (I’ve tracked this argument here and here, for example) , shouldn’t creationists simply give evolution writers enough rope to hang themselves?

Could McLeroy’s testimony be modern young-earth creationism’s Galileo moment?  When Galileo accepted his punishment for his argument that the earth went around the sun, he is said to have noted, “E pur si muove,”… “It still moves.”  Whatever bad scientists said, the truth was the truth.

McLeroy’s plea to expose children to good evolutionary textbooks can be taken in a similar way.  Supremely confident in the logical weakness of evolutionary theory, McLeroy can push for more and more of it.  Knowing, like Galileo, that whatever bad scientists said, the truth was the truth.

Creationist Textbook Fight: A Progressive Victory?!?

Déjà vu all over again.  That might be the sensation for those of us who have followed Texas’ political battles over textbook content.  Recent politicking has demonstrated the continuing influence of creationists in textbook decisions.

But debate-watchers may not realize that these Texas-textbook headlines represent a progressive victory.

Here’s why: Back in the 1920s, states such as Texas adopted state-wide textbook adoption policies precisely in order to make the process more transparent.  Recent work by liberal watchdogs in the Texas Freedom Network demonstrates the long-term progressive success of those 1920s efforts.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As I describe in my 1920s book, debates over the content of Texas textbooks began way back.  In the 1920s, Texas officials insisted that textbook publishers produce “Texas” editions, with large sections on evolution cut out.  More than that, Texas officials demanded textbooks that ratified a Protestant-dominated vision of American history and culture.  Ever since, as I discuss in my current book, conservative activists such as the Gablers have been able to wield outsized influence on the textbook adoption process in Texas.

Yet this long history of conservative influence in Texas textbooks is not merely the story of conservative domination of Lone Star public education.

As Adam Shapiro argues in his excellent new book Trying Biology, progressives in the 1920s fought hard to ensure that these textbook decisions were made openly and publicly.  Previous textbook purchases had been made at the local level.  Sweetheart deals between publishers and school-district officials often left students with low-quality, high-priced textbooks.

Progressive reformers wanted more open discussion of textbook purchasing decisions.  In several states, including Texas, they passed state-wide adoption laws.  In Texas a state board selects a list of approved textbooks, from which districts can choose.  Those deliberations are public events, with legal requirements to share documents and content.

In a sense, therefore, recent headlines about creationist influence on textbook purchases represent a long-term victory for those early progressive reformers.  Liberal activists in the Texas Freedom Network have been able to monitor these deliberations.  The Texas board of education is legally required to provide public access to many of their discussions and debates.  As a result, concerned liberals and science-education types have been able to mount effective and informed protests over creationist influence.

Do progressives have a long history of winning culture-war battles in Texas?  Not really.  Conservative influence in Texas public education remains dominant, as Scott Thurman documented in his film The Revisionaries.  Indeed, the Texas Freedom Network has lamented the delays and obfuscations of conservative officials as the TFN has demanded access to public records.  Nevertheless, the TFN’s strong legal case—their insistence on access to those records—represents the hard-fought victories of earlier generations of progressive activists.



Religion? Or Discrimination?

What if I think my religion condemns homosexuality?

The US Constitution says the government must not interfere with my right freely to practice my religion.  Does that mean I have a right to discriminate against homosexuals?

Thanks to liberal watchdog Texas Freedom Network, we see a case from San Antonio that forces us to confront this dilemma.

According to the San Antonio Business Journal, the Texas-based Liberty Institute has complained about a proposed city ordinance in San Antonio.  The proposed ordinance would extend the city council’s non-discrimination rule to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Conservative Christians have complained that this expanded rule would effectively prohibit them from the free practice of their religion.

Such issues often wend their way through education debates.  For instance, religious conservatives in America have warned against the “homosexual agenda” in public education.  In this CitizenLink video, for example, conservative Christian commentators explain the “sneaky” nature of pro-homosexual ideology in America’s schools.  Conservatives have repeatedly scoured their school libraries and classrooms for books that cram a “gay is okay” message down the throats of unsuspecting schoolkids.

Thinking conservatives have complained that sexual orientation and gender identity are not simply the newest civil-rights issue.  In cities with an anti-discrimination rule, would conservative opposition to homosexuality become illegal?  Would conservative Christians find themselves forced to choose between the free practice of their religion and their observation of the law?

The San Antonio City Council has found itself in the thick of this dilemma.  By proposing a ban on anti-gay discrimination, are they unintentionally proposing a ban on many conservative Christians?  Are they trampling conservative constitutional rights in an effort to protect the rights of homosexuals?