Americans United last month filed a federal lawsuit designed to clean up some church-state problems at an Arizona charter school. As charter schools grow in popularity, this case could set a national precedent.
Remember, charter schools for the purposes of separation of church and state are public institutions. They are arms of the public school system and are funded by the taxpayers. They aren’t private schools, and they can’t engage in religious indoctrination.
Yet that seems to be what’s going on at the three campuses of Heritage Academy in Mesa, Queen Creek and Laveen. Although the schools claim to offer a “classical” education, they look to be heavily grounded in the theological teachings of a man named W. Cleon Skousen.
Skousen, who died in 2006, was a former FBI administrative employee and an extremely conservative member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He produced several books arguing that the United States and the U.S. Constitution were divinely inspired. Skousen’s ideas are catching on among the Religious Right. His 1981 book The 5000 Year Leap was rediscovered by far-right media personality Glenn Beck a few years ago and has become all the rage in Tea Party circles. A group called the National Center for Constitutional Studies that promotes Skousen’s ideas produced a study guide titled Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land that expounds on the ideas of The 5000 Year Leap. Both books are used in Heritage Academy’s American Government course.
The 5000 Year Leap contains some unusual, not to mention inaccurate, ideas. We at Americans United were struck by this passage: “From all this it will be seen that the Founders were not indulging in any idle gesture when they adopted the motto ‘In God We Trust.’”
“In God We Trust,” of course, has no connection to the Founders. It was adopted by Congress in 1956. The fact that Skousen did not know this basic information is alarming.
Elsewhere in Leap, Skousen opines that the role of men is “to protect and provide” while a woman’s job is to “strengthen the family solidarity in the home and provide a wholesome environment for her husband and children.” He implies that women should not have the right to vote because in ancient times a man “not only cast a ballot for himself, but also for his wife and children.”
He blasts LGBT rights, calling same-sex activity “unnatural” and asserting that it “shattered twenty mighty civilizations in the past.”
Skousen even bemoaned the Unites States’ decision to enter World War II, carping that the world would be “much happier, more peaceful, and more prosperous” if America has chosen “a policy of ‘separatism’” over being “the world’s greatest policeman.” (You would be hard pressed today to find any legitimate historian who doubts our decision to fight the Axis Powers.)
Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land contains similar problematic statements. The tome argues that “divine law” is the best protector of human rights and asserts, among other things, that “All things were created by God, therefore upon Him all mankind are equally dependent and to Him they are equally responsible” and “Without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained.”
Americans United also received complaints about the way Heritage Academy teaches science. The schools don’t teach creationism directly, but we’ve heard reports that some teachers, when discussing evolution, make it clear that they don’t believe it and students shouldn’t either.
The idea behind charter schools was to spur innovation by freeing up schools from some of the traditional rules and regulations that are imposed on them. But some of these regulations are not negotiable. Charter schools can’t engage in discrimination, for example.
They also can’t ignore the separation of church and state. Most charters abide by that principle, but in this case, it appears that Heritage Academy has decided it can offer religious instruction based on a tome that poses as a history and government text – even though the man who wrote it was neither a historian nor a political scientist.
Skousen’s religious beliefs would be acceptable for a private school (albeit an idiosyncratic one). They are completely inappropriate as the basis for a taxpayer-funded public institution.