January 2015 Church & State | Featured

Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, isn’t always willing to put his money where his mouth is, at least when it comes to defending his sectarian agenda in court.

Green, who won a huge victory for the Religious Right last year at the U.S. Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which curtailed employees’ access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act, is out to indoctrinate public school students through a curriculum that claims the Bible is literally true.

But when Americans United and its allies got wind of Green’s scheme, an Oklahoma school district that planned to offer the class had to make a choice: move forward with it or risk a lawsuit. Fortunately, Green made that decision easy.

In a November 24 email responding to an open records request, Mustang Schools Superintendent Sean McDan­iel told attorneys with Americans Uni­ted, the American Civil Liberties Un­ion and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that the class had been cancelled because the district was not able to review the final curriculum, nor did it secure a “commitment [from Hobby Lobby] to provide legal coverage to the district” if confronted with legal action.

“Education officials in Mustang did the wise thing,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a media statement. “Objective study about religion in public schools is permissible, but this curriculum was essentially an extended Sunday School lesson.”

But before those officials did the “wise thing” they first did some very unwise things – namely getting cozy with Green. His course is designed to correspond with his planned Museum of the Bible, which is currently under construction in Washington, D.C. Jer­ry Pattengale, who heads the Green Scholars Initiative and is overseeing the curriculum’s development, said the ultimate goal is put the curriculum in “thousands” of schools.

If those are public schools, that is a serious constitutional issue. As part of its investigation, Americans United obtained a copy of Green’s curriculum. Af­­ter examining it, AU attorneys concluded that it is problematic. The curri­culum is written from a Protestant Chris­­tian viewpoint and is tinged with a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

It’s legal to teach objectively about the Bible in public schools, but Green appeared to have something else in mind. In his curriculum, for example, the story of Genesis is treated as fact.  

“Even more astounding, God placed human beings in a garden full of food he had made for them,” reads a passage in Green’s text, The Book: The Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact. “This contrasts with the Near Eastern view that the job of humans is to provide food and entertainment for the gods. Everything is different!”

Mark Chancey, who teaches religious studies at Southern Methodist University, also reviewed the curriculum for the Texas Freedom Network, an Americans United ally that monitors public school textbooks. Chan­cey, who noted that the version he reviewed had already undergone 10 revisions, wrote, “The presence of frequent errors and extensive sectarian bias at this late stage of development raises questions about whether the final product will be significantly better.”

Chancey also concluded that the curriculum treats the Bible as if it is “lit­erally, historically accurate and ‘reliable.’”

Said Chancey: “For example, it presents Adam, Eve, and all other biblical characters, unambiguously as historical personages.” He also argued that the content is riddled with historical errors, and that it exaggerates its scholarly input. His conclusions suggested that this course is sectarian and would likely violate the First Amendment if implemented in a public school.

Apparently those facts did not initially deter Mustang Schools, which willfully hid the curriculum’s approval from the public. On April 14, the board held a closed-door meeting with Green and other members of his Green Scholars Initiative team. That same day, the board approved the curriculum for use in Mustang Schools starting in the fall of 2014. McDaniel admitted that he ordered the curriculum to be reviewed in separate presentations in order to skirt open meetings requirements, but he did so at the direction of Green and his allies, reported the Associated Press.

“I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting,” McDaniel wrote in an email that the AP obtained. (Ashleigh is an employee of the Oklahoma-based Sax­um public relations company, which does work for Hobby Lobby and assisted in setting up the meetings.)

These secretive moves by Green and the school board led to some quick backlash.

 “Even if there’s an out-of-county board, if they come here and meet in an attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, just because they’ve met in a place that’s not routine, doesn’t mean they circumvent their requirements for meetings,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater told the AP. “If someone is going to that great of length to avoid quorum, it sounds like they’re being pretty darn careful.”

In response, McDaniel provided a weak defense.

“This was something that we wanted to be able to have conversation about and ask questions,” he said. “If we have the media and the public coming into Hobby Lobby headquarters with us, that can just be confusing and awkward since we’re all seeing it for the first time. My thought was, ‘Hey, let’s hold off on having a public meeting until we see a little more.’”  

Had the public been aware of the specifics of Green’s curriculum, it’s possible the board would not have approved it in the first place. At the time the details of Green’s curriculum were not widely known, but he had offered some insight into his plans. In a 2013 speech delivered to the National Bible Association, Green explained that his planned curriculum would be divided into three sections: the history of the Bible, the story of the Bible and the impact of the Bible.

“The history is to show the reliability of this book,” he told his audience, adding, “When you present the evidence, the evidence is overwhelming.”

Green, who believes the Bible to be literally true, also said at the time that his course intended to show “the reliability of [the Bible],” suggesting that there would be little effort to teach the book in an objective way. He even said his class could rescue the United States from ruin.

“That’s our goal, so that we can reintroduce this book to this nation,” Green told the crowd. “This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught.”

Almost immediately, Americans United challenged the constitutionality of Green’s curriculum for use in public schools. On April 23, AU attorneys asked the board to abandon its plan.

“In order to reduce the risk of violating the Establishment Clause, the school district should (1) reject the implementation of the approved Bible program, and (2) ensure that any course that includes the Bible also features works from other religions and is taught from a nonreligious point of view—such as in a traditional course about comparative religion,” AU said in its letter. “Any course on the Bible or religion, however designed, must be taught ‘objectively as part of a secular program of education.’”

By July, it seemed the Bible class had run into trouble. The Green Scholars Initiative said the curriculum was on hold until January 2015 due to “unforeseen delays,” according the Religion News Service (RNS).

“We have operated on an aggressive timeline to deliver the curriculum for the upcoming school year,” Pattengale told RNS. “We will continue to work with Mustang and other school districts that have shown interest.”

But with the announcement of the delay also came some troubling news – the Mustang board said in July that it would retain the Alliance Defending Freedom, a large Religious Right legal group, as its counsel. This suggested to many that the board was preparing for a prolonged legal battle.

Fortunately, that fight never materialized. In his email to Americans United and its allies in November, McDaniel said the Bible curriculum was off the table at Mustang Schools.

“In summary, the topic of a Bible course in the Mustang School District is no longer a discussion item nor is there a plan to provide such a course in the foreseeable future,” he wrote. “All students who were pre-enrolled in the elective had their schedules changed to a Humanities course or they were afforded the opportunity to select another elective.”

Since Green has called his Bible class the “fourth leg” of his personal Christian ministry (this includes the Museum of the Bible), it’s safe to say he won’t pack up his bags after one defeat. That’s why Americans United will continue to keep a close eye on Green.

“There is no room in public schools for a one-sided class on the Bible,” Lynn said. “If Green wanted to teach students about religious texts in an unbiased way, we would have no issue with that. But he has made it crystal clear that proselytizing – not education – is his goal. That is simply not acceptable.”