Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

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Stomp on Jesus at College

Conservative thinkers and activists have long worried that the faith of young people would be threatened by the dangerous skepticism they learned in college.

A recent flap at Florida Atlantic University demonstrates the continuing worry over the anti-faith teaching on offer in American higher education.

In this story, student Ryan Rotela protested when instructor Deandre Poole told students to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, then stomp on it.  According to reports, Rotela claimed to have been suspended from class for his unwillingness to complete the assignment.  The university later apologized.

The flurry of interest in this story among conservatives tells us something about their attitudes toward higher education.

Paul Kengor, for example, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College, told Fox News’ Todd Starnes this sort of Jesus-bashing was typical of today’s higher education.  This sort of lesson “reflects the rising confidence and aggression of the new secularists and atheists, especially at our sick and surreal modern universities,” Kengor said.

This anxiety over the goings-on at “modern” universities has a long lineage.

In 1922, for example, William Jennings Bryan warned that even among rich and powerful families, college threatened students’ faith.  One of Bryan’s acquaintances, a US Congressman, told Bryan that his daughter had returned from college only to inform him that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”  Nor was this an isolated case, Bryan argued.  Other Congressmen and prominent clergy had shared similar stories.  Children had gone off to school, only to return with a set of values and ideas abhorrent to their parents.    [See William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1922), 120.]

Patriotic conservative activists in the 1930s shared these worries about the nature of “modern” schools.  In 1935, for instance, New York Congressman Hamilton Fish denounced the socialism and communism that had corrupted leading schools such as Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina.  Such schools, Fish charged, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.”

Conservatives have long worried about what goes on once America’s children go off to college.  What will students be asked to do at college?  What will they be forced to learn?  Will they be punished if they refuse to stomp on Jesus?

**UPDATES:  Juan Williams has offered a defense of the Jesus-stomp lesson at Fox News.  And the Texas Freedom Network Insider has reported that the instructor of the controversial lesson is a leader in his Biblical-Christian church, Lighthouse Worship Center Church of God in Christ.  Does that matter?

Porky’s Revenge: Gender Identity and School Bathrooms

Remember Porky’s?  I looked it up, and found a surprisingly thorough plot summary on Wikipedia.  Before I looked it up, though, I had only a hazy memory from my teenage years of a group of boys trying to look into a girl’s shower.

According to some conservative commentators, the Massachusetts Department of Education (MDOE) has sunk to Porky’s level in a misguided attempt to avoid discrimination.

In November, 2011, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  If someone identifies as something other than the gender that person was assigned at birth, whether as a male, female, neither, or other, that person may not be discriminated against in any way.

Recently, MDOE issued some guidelines for school implementation of the new law in public schools.  Public schools must make all students feel welcome and valued, regardless of gender identity.

Predictably, some commentators focused first on the restroom ramifications of the new law.

Writing for Fox News, Todd Starnes noted that parents reacted with outrage to the notion that someone born as a boy could identify as a girl and use the girls’ restroom, or vice versa.  Starnes also critiqued the rule’s enforcement policy.  If a student does not adequately recognize a fellow student’s gender identity—in the way the fellow student wishes—he or she could face punishment for bullying.  That is, if a student calls a fellow student “he,” or a “boy,” when the fellow student identifies as a “girl,” or “neither,” it could count as bullying.

One parent told Starnes, “It doesn’t treat all students the same. . . .  It has a greater preference to gender-identifying children. That concerns me a great deal.”

In the pages of Public Discourse, lawyers Adam J. McCloud and Andrew Beckwith took a different approach.  This sort of policy overreach, McCloud and Beckwith insist, is nothing more than a predictable outgrowth of America’s penchant for redefining marriage.

Changes in law and principle can take a while to unfold as policy and practice, they note.  “Redefining marriage to eliminate sexual complementarity as an essential characteristic,” they argue,

“doesn’t automatically commit a state to forcing girls to share locker rooms with boys. But there is a logical connection. One of the premises justifying the redefinition of marriage also grounds these new regulations, that is, the view that sexual difference is irrelevant to the practice of marriage.

“But if sexual difference is irrelevant to marriage, then how can it be relevant to any practices? Once the state has determined that sexual difference is no longer a legitimate reason to extend special recognition to man-woman monogamy, there is no reason in principle to maintain sexual distinctions in less intimate practices. If one’s anatomical reality isn’t relevant to one’s marriage, it’s even less obvious why it should be relevant to one’s bathroom choice.”