When it comes to education, Rod Paige, the nation's top school official, has some definite preferences. Schools that infuse Chrisdtian teaching into their courses, he thinks, are preferable to tried-and-true public school curricula.

In an interview with Baptist Press, Paige, the U.S. secretary of education, remarked, "All things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, and so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have a strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally."

Secretary Paige also suggested in the interview that the diversity of the public schools is undermining the education of students.

"In a religious environment the value system is pretty well set and supported," Paige said. "In public schools there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it's very hard to get consensus around some core values."

Later in the interview the secretary acknowledged that many disagree with the overt religiosity of the Bush administration but said his response to that is, "I would offer them my prayers."

It did not take much time for Paige's remarks to bring attention to his work as leader of the U.S. Department of Edudcation, which according to government statistics overdsees nearly 47 million students. Paige's praise of Christian schooling was discussed in stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Assodciated Press and CNN, as well as an array of other news mediums. The Times April 9 headline described the situation as a "Church-State Furor."

The secretary's remarks also drew criticism from public interest groups and federal lawmakers, which would eventually prompt several Religious Right leaders to come to the secretary's defense.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director, called Paige's comments "outrageous and offensive."

"He seems to have forgotten that he's not the secretary of Christian education, but rather the education leader for all children," Lynn told the AP.

In an April 8 letter to Paige, Lynn called on the secretary to either repudiate his comments or resign his post.

"I am disappointed that you, as the leader of America's public education system, apparently have little appreciation for the great religious diversity of our nation and our public school system," Lynn wrote. "I am writing to you today to strongly urge you to repudiate these statements immediately and publicly reaffirm your commitment to a public school system that welcomes and values young people of all religious faiths and none....

"If you cannot in good conscience do so," Lynn continued, "then please resign your post. The position of Education Secretary should be occupied by someone who not only understands, but indeed values, this nation's commitment to religious diversity and separation of church and state."

The editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times also came out against Paige's apparent preference for Chrisdtian schooling. The Post's editorial dubbed the secretary "Preacher Paige," and The New York Times' editorial noted that Paige's remarks "reinforce suspicions that the administration is in sympathy with the religious right's drive to undermine the public school system in favor of a voucher-financed nationwide network of religious schools."

Members of Congress, such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Eddward Kennedy (D-Mass.), also expresdsed outrage. Both lawmakers sent letters to the federal official voicing their concerns.

In his April 9 missive, Kennedy urged the secretary to recant his statements saying that, "By expressing your preference for schools that teach the values of a single faith, you send an unacceptable signal that some families and their children are favored over others because of their faith."

Nadler's letter, which was also signed by eleven other representatives, declared, "If you are unprepared to make clear that this sort of religious bigotry has no place in the Department of Education, then we would urge you to resign and allow a person who understands this nation's commitment to diversity and religious equality to assume your duties."

In a hurried attempt to tamp down the roiling controversy, Paige scheduled a conference call to reporters and tried to clarify his remarks. That attempt was largely a failure, especially since he stood by his comments.

"All things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities...." - Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Educatrion

Paige proclaimed he had nothing to apologize for and accused his critics of harboring an unnamed agenda.

The New Republic's weblog, called "&c.," found Paige's defense of himself lame, to say the least.

"But it's hard to imagine that Paige's critics Jewish representatives like Jerrold Nadler and Nita Lowey, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn have something more sinister in mind than, well, wanting to preserve the separation of church and state," the TNR bloggers wrote. "If Paige thinks they do, then he's not only incompetent and ideologically extreme, he's delusional as well. (Lynn is, after all, an ordained minister.)"

The April 11 New York Times editorial page didn't appreciate Paige's defense either.

"The secretary of education needs either to do some fast fence-mending," The Times said, "or step down."

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), one of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights coalitions, also urged Paige to back off from his comments. Thirty religious, educational and advocacy groups signed LCCR's April 11 letter to Paige. Among those organizations were the National Educadtion Association, the American Federadtion of Teachers, the NAACP, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the National Council of Churches.

"Religious diversity in our public schools is an asset, not a hindrance, and in fact fosters the religious tolerance that this country was founded upon," the LCCR's letter states. "For the Secretary of Education to express a preference for a particular religion and its practices is irresponsible and discriminatory, and undermines the mission of inclusiveness of our public school system."

Religious Right leaders, however, sprang to Paige's defense.

William Bennett, the former education secretary under Ronald Reagan, rhetorically asked what all the fuss was about.

"He'd prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community," Bennett said. "Who's opposed to that?"

Then, in an April 13 op-ed column in The Washington Post, Bennett, the nation's self-appointed arbiter of morals, joined other Paige apologists, proclaiming that public schools "would do well" to teach Christian values. In near hysteria, Bennett fumed that AU's Lynn should resign his position for "being so ridiculous."

The Family Research Council issued a "Washington Update" that fired ad hominem attacks at Lynn, Kennedy and Nadler. FRC President Ken Connor, said, "The left's attack on Sec. Paige is an example of the intolerant anti-Christian bigotry among radical secularists who would drive any recognition of faith from the public square."

Other right-wing lobbying groups, such as Concerned Women for America and the Traddidtional Values Coalition joined with Connor in decrying the criticism of Paige's comments. CWA claimed that "violence ridden schools" are in need of Christian values.

A week after the controversy surfaced, the Baptist Press also offered a defense of Paige, which entailed firing the reporter of the story and issuing the "full-text transcript of the interview." According to the news service (which is the public relations arm of the fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist Condvendtion), reporter Todd Starnes misrepresented some of Paige's comments.

Oddly, however, the alleged transcript confirmed Paige's support of religious schooling, even on the taxpayers' dime.

"A child should be free to select a school that best meets that child's need, whether it's private or whether it's public or whether it's a cyber-school or whether it's home schooling or whatever," Paige said. "There will be a complex matrix of educational delivery systems, which includes all these different delivery systems. And private schools have a wonderful track record. There's a vast body of research from the University of Chicago and elsewhere that indicate that private schools, especially religious Cathodlic schools, offer a high-quality education to some low-income students in inner-city settings."

In the transcript, Paige also buys into Religious Right propaganda against public schools, agreeing with the reporter's assertion that there is widespread animosity toward God in public schools. Paige says these alleged anti-God efforts in schools are "a real puzzle to me."

When asked if public schools should teach religious values, Paige responds, "Absolutely. I think that religious values are wonderful values that we should embrace in our daily lives wherever we are...."

Secretary Paige has been one of the Bush administration's most overlooked cabinet members, rarely garnering press coverage for his work at the education department.

But his comments in favor of religious schooling have helped shed light on a troubling directive his department recently issued to public school districts nationwide.

The directive, called "Guidance on Constitutionality Protected Prayer in the Public Elementary and Secondary Schools," is timely evidence that Paige is backing up his bias for religious schooling with action. Actually, the secretary appears to be falling in line with his boss's "faith-based" agenda.

On a number of fronts, the new guidance takes federal court cases about church-state matters and skews them to declare certain religious actions by students or teachers to be legal in the public schools.

Religious Right lobbying groups have crowed about the involvement of their attorneys in helping draft the DOE's directive on religion in public schools.

Some Religious Right lobbying groups have crowed about the involvement of their attorneys in helping to draft the DOE's directive. Indeed, FRC's Connor, in an e-mail alert, stated that, "FRC played a key role in fleshing out the new guidelines."

Americans United and other public interest groups have sharply criticized the directive and say its provisions "push the envelope on behalf of prayer in public schools."

Both sides of the debate recognize the threat of federal intervention that now accompanies the guidance. The directive puts an entire school district at risk of losing all its federal funds if just one of its schools is out of "compliance." To continue receiving federal dollars, as part of the "Leave No Child Behind" Act, which became law in 2001, school administrators must sign a document attesting to compliance with the guidance.

In a Washington Times column, Terry Eastland quoted a DOE attorney who praised the new directive for its enforcement provision.

"We didn't have a stick before," the government attorney said. "We have one now."

Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based Religious Right lawyers' outfit affiliated with TV preacher Jerry Falwell, is aggressively promoting the guidance, with links on its website to the DOE and every state education department, urging citizens to "report a school that does not comply with the guidelines."

Mat Staver, the Counsel's president, bragged to Focus on the Family's web magazine, CitizenLink, about the guidance's "real teeth."

"There's going to be a lot of pressure from the school district to make sure all the individual schools are in compliance," Staver blustered. "Students will be able to actually pray at the beginning of assemblies, at the beginning of all sorts of sports events and extra-curricular activities. In fact, [they can] even [pray] in Jesus' name."

According to CitizenLink, the guidance's provisions "bulldoze the barriers pieced together by schools over the years." The barriers CitizenLink refers to are those constructed by federal courts to ensure church-state separation.

Americans United is fighting back. In early April, AU's Lynn sent letters to the directors of every state school agency, explaining the problematic areas of the directive.

"We cannot allow the Bush administration's distortions to go unchallenged," said Lynn. "The courts have ruled consistently that public schools may not sponsor religious worship. The Bush administration cannot change that fact merely by issuing a decree."

The AU letter cites the guidance's threat of withholding of federal funds and three other areas where set law is scrambled, unfortunately providing improper understandings of church-state parameters within the public schools.

The guidance, AU's letter asserts, incorrectly declares that teachers have the right to participate in religious activities on school grounds, states that certain forms of "student-initiated" prayer are legal during graduation ceremonies and other school events and implies that students have a right to weave religious material into their classroom presentations.

Concerns about the DOE guidance, combined with Secretary Paige's confession of his preference for the values of a Christian education, leave Americans United and other progressive groups deeply concerned that the constitutional principle of church-state separation is under emboldened attack.

In his letter to state education officials, AU's Lynn promised that the Americans United legal team would assist any "public school that is unjustly threatened with loss of public funds" for allegedly not complying with the department's guidance.

As action at the Education Departdment proceeds, Americans United will be watching carefully and preparing to respond.