Students attending Heritage Academy, a string of charter schools in three Arizona cities, are learning some unusual things.
In an American Government class and other courses, students are taught that non-believers are mentally unfit, the Constitution was inspired by the Bible and evolution is an unsound theory.
The American Government course looks to be drenched in religion. It’s based on 28 principles that supposedly are required for sound government. Many of them are religious in nature.
The first principle, for example, states that “Natural Law” is the only solid basis for government. This is defined as “laws which the Supreme Creator has already established.”
The fourth principle states, “Without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained,” while the fifth principle maintains, “All things were created by God, therefore upon Him all mankind are equally dependent and to Him they are equally responsible.” The ninth principle holds that “To protect man’s rights, God has revealed certain principles of divine law.”
Such concepts would raise few eyebrows in a private, sectarian school. But Heritage Academy, which has campuses in Mesa, Queen Creek and Laveen, isn’t private. It’s a charter school, an arm of the public education system that is funded by taxpayer dollars.
Public schools can’t push religion like this, and Americans United intends to put a stop to it. The organization filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 7 that seeks to end the religious indoctrination going on at Heritage Academy.
Americans United first became aware of problems at Heritage Academy more than two years ago, when parents raised concerns and alerted the group. In December of 2013, AU attorneys attempted to resolve the matter outside of court. They sent a letter to officials at the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, alerting them to the problems at the school and pointing out that some textbooks used there were clearly religious in nature.
Officials at the board refused to take the issue seriously, insisting that the textbooks were appropriate for use.
In June of 2014, AU tried again. Attorneys wrote to the board once more, citing specific passages from two books, The 5000 Year Leap and The Making of America.
The letter pointed out that The 5000 Year Leap asserts that non-believers are “irrational” and that parts of it read like a religious tract. One section of the book is titled “How Can One Know There Is a God?”
Other sections of the tome, AU’s letter noted, are titled “Concerning God’s Revealed Law Distinguishing Right from Wrong” and “The Nearness of God.”
“Because the two books clearly promote and endorse specific religious views and ideologies, we ask you to remove The 5000 Year Leap and The Making of America from Heritage Academy’s curriculum,” wrote AU to Arizona education officials. “We further request that you ensure that Heritage Academy’s history and government classes not be taught in a manner that is similar to the instruction in the two books or that otherwise promotes or endorses religion.”
But once again, state education officials refused to deal with the issue. In response, Americans United’s attorneys began gathering evidence for a lawsuit. That case, Doe v. Heritage Academy, Inc., is now under way and could have national implications as charters continue to spread.
Asserts the lawsuit, “By teaching religious beliefs in a public charter school, which is subject to the U.S. Constitution just like all other public schools, Heritage Academy has violated the First Amendment.”
The suit also points out that Heritage required students to actively spread its unusual views.
“In a transparent attempt to proselytize the school’s religious views, Heritage Academy students are further taught that they are duty-bound to implement and instruct others about these religious and religiously based principles in order to restore the United States to ‘freedom, prosperity, and peace,’” reads the legal complaint.
How did things get to this point? Part of the problem may lie in the nature of charter schools. The concept, which came into vogue a few decades ago, was designed to allow for experimentation in education by encouraging community groups, businesses and groups of parents to form schools that explore non-traditional approaches to learning.
In many states, charter schools have been implemented without presenting church-state problems. But in a handful cases, religion has infiltrated the curriculum of these institutions. Heritage Academy appears to be one of those cases.
The schools are modeled on the teachings of W. Cleon Skousen, a former administrative employee at the FBI and a conspiracy theorist who wrote a number of books expounding on his beliefs that the United States is playing a providential role in world history.
Skousen, who died in 2006, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and believed that the U.S. Constitution had been divinely inspired. He felt that America had a role to play in religious prophecy and also believed that the Anglo-Saxons who eventually settled the North American continent were descendants of the 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel.
Although an obscure figure to most people, Skousen began gaining popularity among the far right after television personality Glenn Beck started promoting his works, especially The 5000 Year Leap.
“That book is absolutely right,” Beck said in 2014. “That book, The 5000 Year Leap, changed my understanding of the United States government and our founders. It is the clearest, simplest, most direct way to teach what happened and why we were founded the way we were.”
Added Beck, “Teach it to your children. Read it to them at night. Bring it to the dinner table. It will be the only chance they have to actually learn American history.”
Although officials with the Mormon church in the late 1970s made it clear that they did not endorse Skousen’s teachings, he remained popular with some church members and eventually began gaining notice outside of Mormon circles. Beck, a fellow Mormon, was apparently entranced by Skousen’s novel theories.
To mainstream scholars, Skousen’s ideas are only so much bunkum.
After AU’s original protest two years ago, Garrett Epps, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied Skousen’s books, told the Arizona Republic, “Skousen’s account of the growth and meaning of the Constitution is quite inaccurate.”
Epps added, “Any student taught from these materials in a public institution is being subjected to religious indoctrination [and] is also being crippled educationally and will be ill-prepared to take part in any serious program of instruction of American government and law.”
Skousen’s writings are soaked with inaccurate – and offensive – views about American history. A fan of the neo-Confederate version of history, he once favorably cited an article arguing that slaves in the Deep South were well cared for and often envied by whites. He also argued that Native Americans lost their land because of God’s judgment, and once even asserted that the United States made a mistake by entering World War II.
Sometimes Skousen simply got things wrong. In The 5000 Year Leap, Skousen asserts, “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 fact, the Founders had nothing to do with the adoption of “In God We Trust” as a national motto. The U.S. Congress chose it in 1956.
The 5000 Year Leap also promotes rigid gender roles from days gone by. It calls for wives to submit to their husbands. The book asserts that a man is to “protect and provide” while a woman’s role is to “strengthen the family solidarity in the home and provide a wholesome environment for her husband and children.” Men are to make all decisions, and Skousen even implies that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. He asserts that in ancient biblical societies, men voted on behalf of the entire family.
Members of the LGBTQ community don’t fare well in Skousen’s worldview either. Gays are accused of taking part in “unnatural sexual practices.” Being gay, Skousen asserts, is a type of “insanity” that has “shattered twenty mighty civilizations in the past.” Skousen favorably cites ancient legal codes that made homosexual acts a capital offense.
Despite these intolerant views, Skousen’s fans remain undeterred. According to his acolytes, Skousen is a kind of unsung hero who dared to tell the real story of America’s origins. Skousen’s version of things, heavily intertwined with his own peculiar theology, holds that America’s founders were guided by God.
A strident anti-Communist in the 1950s, Skousen, Salon reported in 2009, gave lectures for the John Birch Society. He later began peddling wild-eyed conspiracies about a “New World Order” laced with attacks on the United Nations. In 2007, even the archly conservative National Review called him an “all-around nutjob.”
Beck, who in 2007 wrote a new forward to The 5000 Year Leap, made Skousen’s works popular in Tea Party circles. Right-wing activists then began turning to a group based in Idaho called the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS) that promotes Skousen’s ideas through literature sales and seminars.
NCCS has ties to Heritage Academy. The school’s principal, Earl Taylor Jr., who also teaches classes at the school, serves as president of NCCS. On its website, NCCS refers to Heritage Academy as “our charter high school.” The group has produced a commentary on The 5000 Year Leap titled Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land that is also used in the school.
Taylor writes regularly for NCCS’s website. Many of his columns dwell on his belief that the United States was founded on the Bible. One of them, dated Jan. 1, 2014, is titled “Parallel Concepts between the U.S. Constitution & the Bible.” It attempts to prove that the Bible inspired the Constitution, but the links exist mainly in Taylor’s mind.
In the column, Taylor claims that the passage from the Constitution’s preamble stating “In order to form a more perfect union…” comes from Genesis 2:24, which states, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
Ideas like this run throughout the American Government course at Heritage Academy. AU’s legal complaint asserts that much of the course is based on the 28 principles outlined in Skousen’s book. Students are required to memorize the principles and recite them in class. They’re also told to analyze news stories and explain how current events do or do not align with the principles.
Students are also required to proselytize for Skousen. To pass the class, each student must tell five people who don’t attend Heritage, or who don’t live with them, something they learned about the Constitution during the class.
AU’s complaint also details several instances of Heritage teachers working to undermine instruction on evolution. A science teacher told students that while they must learn about evolutionary theory, they don’t have to believe it. After a student made a presentation on Charles Darwin, a history teacher spent several minutes attacking evolution.
The two defendants in the case include an anonymous “John Doe” plaintiff who has at least one child who attends Heritage. The other plaintiff, the Rev. David Felten, is head pastor of The Fountains, a United Methodist church in Fountain Hills, Ariz. Felten, who has a child who attends another charter school, said he objects to the use of his tax dollars paying for religious instruction.
The lawsuit is being litigated by Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and AU Madison Fellow Carmen Green. Joining them are John Nadolenco and Kristin Silverman of Mayer Brown LLP, a national law firm, and Roopali Desai and D. Andy Gaona of Coppersmith Brockelman PLC in Phoenix.
The day the suit was filed, AU’s Green penned a post for AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog taking a closer look at the Academy’s curriculum.
Green noted that Skousen’s book, The Making of America, which is also required reading at Heritage Academy, came under scrutiny in 1987 when California’s Bicentennial Commission approved its sale for a fund-raising project. Commission officials were embarrassed when mainstream historians pointed out that the book contained errors and racist content.
“Students should learn about government in government class; they shouldn’t be learning their teacher’s preferred theology,” Green observed. “Public charter schools, like all public schools, should respect the religious freedom of students and their families to make decisions about religious belief for themselves.”
AU’s new lawsuit aims to compel Heritage Academy to do just that.