January 2015 Church & State | People & Events

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) recently approved 89 new social studies textbooks for use in public classrooms, but controversy over the books’ content is likely to linger as critics allege the tomes contain multiple errors and exaggerations designed to portray the United States as a fundamentally Christian nation.

In November, the board voted 10-5 along party lines to incorporate textbooks that overstate the influence of Mosaic law on the Founding Fathers, cast doubt on the constitutionality of separation of church and state and skew discussions of existing legal precedent on prayer in schools. Although publishers did make many corrections to the books before they were approved – such as watering down inflammatory and inaccurate information about Islam – “Christian nation” myths remain in the material.

This sort of inaccurate or misleading content is unfortunately par for the course when comes to textbooks in Texas. In 2010, the SBOE passed a series of curriculum standards that mandated instruction that emphasized the country’s supposed Christian heritage. Those standards, and the flawed review process itself (which included few qualified teachers), finally proved too much for one publisher. According to the Texas Tribune, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt pulled its government textbook from consideration after being asked to “add greater coverage of Judeo-Christian influence – including Moses – on America’s founding fathers.”

AU Cartoon by Tim Ritz

The SBOE has also come into conflict with other publishers thanks to its ideological crusade. WorldView Software, which makes electronic textbooks, was seemingly booted from consideration thanks to politics. Prior to the final vote in November, WorldView issued a strongly worded statement in response to public testimony from Barbara Lamontagne, who told the SBOE that the material called the late General Douglas MacArthur “racist” and lionized communist figures at the expense of President Ronald Reagan.

WorldView slammed the comments as “very serious and patently false allegations” and noted that Lamontagne admitted in her testimony that she had not read the material before preparing her remarks. Despite this, the SBOE ruled that WorldView had not done enough to address her criticisms, and rejected the company’s curriculum.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), criticized the review process in a press statement.

“And once again the state’s process for approving textbooks was revealed to be a sham, as state board members voted for last-minute changes that they had never even read,” Miller said. “Those changes were approved without any input whatsoever from historians and experts.”

TFN had appointed its own review panel to identify errors and suggest corrections in the books. Scholars expressed serious concern over the books’ slant, only for those concerns to be largely dismissed by the SBOE.

Americans United also opposed the books by launching a petition in partnership with TFN and People For the American Way; these organizations combined to collect over 30,000 signatures of concerned citizens who demand that publishers produce accurate textbooks for Texas students.

Activist Zack Kopplin also testified on Americans United’s behalf before the SBOE in November to reiterate our concerns that the books presented a flawed, fundamentalist version of American history with little to no basis in evidence. The SBOE didn’t respond kindly to Kopplin’s testimony, with one member asking him if he’d been paid to testify. (He was not.)

Thanks to the board’s vote, these bad textbooks are set to enter public classrooms in 2015, where they will be used for the next decade. Local school districts do, however, have the option to reject the books and use alternative curriculum – a move recommended by moderate members of the SBOE.


New AU Legal Memo Debunks Religious Right Claims On Same-Sex Marriage

People who work for the government have no legal right to refuse services to same-sex couples in states where marriage equality is the law, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says in a recent legal memorandum.

Americans United issued the memo Dec. 1 in response to claims being made by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal group based in Arizona. The ADF has been sending letters to states where marriage equality is legal, insisting that clerks and other government officials who oppose gay marriage don’t have to serve same-sex couples.

“Government’s first duty is to treat all people equally,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “If same-sex marriage is legal in a state, clerks and municipal officials must serve all comers. It’s part and parcel of doing your job.”

AU’s memo, which was distributed to officials in states where same-sex marriage is legal, asserts that same-sex couples who are turned away by government clerks would face an undue hardship.

“A religious exemption that would allow a clerk to summarily dismiss a same-sex couple to another counter, or to another building altogether, would impose substantial practical and dignitary harms on the affected individuals,” the memo reads. “Not only would the couple face the logistical harm of undue delay, but they also would be subjected to the sting of unequal and inferior treatment.”

The memo points out that allowing this sort of discrimination would clearly violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Americans United is offering to provide pro bono representation to any governmental entity that is sued by a clerk who is denied a religious exemption from a directive to treat same-sex couples no differently than opposite-sex ones.

The ADF has provided memos to clerks in Virginia, Oklahoma, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Washington, explaining that clerks have a “religious freedom” right to skip out on their required duties and ask another employee to issue a marriage license if  they have a sincere objection to same-sex marriage. 

“No one in America should be forced to choose between following their conscience and serving his or her employer,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Kellie Fiedorek in a media statement. “The First Amendment protects the right to basic freedoms, including the freedom to live and work according to one’s conscience. These freedoms are guaranteed to every American, including those issuing marriage licenses.”

But Americans United countered that the First Amendment doesn’t give any government employees carte blanche to treat anyone as if they are a lesser person.

“The ADF is employing a bogus religious freedom argument to shield a crude form of discrimination, bigotry and bias against LGBT Americans,” said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. “AU’s memo explains why this won’t work.”

Writing about AU’s memo for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern observed, “The ADF looks at the law through the fisheye lens of anti-gay animus, and the results of its analysis have always been correspondingly warped. For years, this bias made the group’s arguments appear offensive. At this point, however, the ADF is merely embarrassing itself.”