Christian Group’s School Text Trial May Set Precedent
A Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the diary of Anne Frank and a story for first-graders in which a girl reads to a boy while he is cooking are among works under attack by a band of Christian fundamentalists in a controversial federal court case here.
Seven sets of parents from the Bible Belt town of Church Hill, in the eastern tip of Tennessee near the Virginia border, charge that the textbooks are “anti-Christian and anti-American” and will corrupt their children’s moral values. They contend that the school district should be required to issue alternative texts that conform to their strict religious beliefs.
But county school officials argue that if they do that, the result will be the increasing fragmentation of the classrooms, with students segregated on the basis of religious belief.
See Case as Crucial
The case, seen by both sides as crucial to the fate of public school instruction throughout the nation, opened here this week before a federal district judge in a nonjury trial.
“The schools have no constitutional right to indoctrinate students with ideas that are contrary to their religious beliefs,” said Robert B. Mozert Jr., a 39-year-old insurance claims adjuster who is among the families that originally filed the suit against the Hawkins County school district in 1983. “I’m not asking for ‘McGuffey Readers’ back. All we want are books that don’t offend our convictions.”
The families contend that the books in question--a series of basic readers for first through eighth graders published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston and widely used in schoolrooms across the country--promote evolution, feminism, supernaturalism, one-world government, rebellion against authority and other concepts they call offensive to fundamentalist Christian believers.
Roles in Story Challenged
Among the examples they cite is a story in the Holt series about Pat, a young girl, who reads to Jim. “Pat has a big book. . . . Pat reads to Jim. Jim cooks,” the story begins. However innocuous such a story may appear on the surface, they argue, it nevertheless implants in young minds the idea that “there are no God-given roles for the different sexes.”
Other material the families find objectionable includes a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a child visits a fortuneteller and a passage from “The Diary of Anne Frank” in which the young Jewish girl, hiding from the Nazis in war-torn Amsterdam, writes of trying to convince a friend that he should have some type of religion but “it doesn’t matter what.”
Hawkins County school officials defend the selection of the Holt texts, which are among those on a state-approved list, and say that providing an alternative curriculum would be difficult and costly.
“We’re not trying to teach any particular doctrine,” school Supt. Robert Cooper said. “We’re trying to teach the students how to read.”
Wants More Proof
Ronald Woods, an attorney for the school district, said that the parents must prove that the textbooks go beyond merely exposing their children to different ideas and, in fact, seriously damage their religious beliefs.
“It’s difficult to conceive how a school could operate if they open the door for someone to come in and say: ‘I don’t like this,’ ” he said. “We see it as a real problem if their relief is granted, particularly in any school district that has limited resources.”
People for the American Way, a liberal civil rights lobby co-founded by television producer Norman Lear to counter the religious right, says the lawsuit carries echoes of the 1925 “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, 150 miles from Greeneville, in which John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was convicted of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law.
Cites Risk of Damage
“In 1925, the court focused on a specific question: should evolution be taught in public schools?” the rights organization’s officials said in a news release. “Today, the same question is asked in a broader context: is it a violation of First Amendment rights for a public school to expose students to subjects which offend their religious beliefs? If the answer is yes, the damage to public education may be irreparable.”
Supporters of the Church Hill families contend that public schools have increasingly usurped the authority of parents and view this case as a way to wrest back control.
“We’re losing the rights of parents to determine what children should be taught,” said Beverly LaHaye of Arlington, Va., wife of television evangelist Tim LaHaye and founder of the 540,000-member Concerned Women for America, a Washington-based organization that is providing legal and financial assistance for the plaintiffs.
The families’ fight began in 1983 after Vicki Frost read through a story called “A Visit to Mars” in one of her daughter’s sixth-grade textbooks and was offended by its suggestions of thought transfer or telepathy.
Organized Other Parents
She and Mozert organized other parents into a group called Citizens Organized for Better Schools, or COBS, and sued the school system for the right to choose reading texts other than the Holt series.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull dismissed the case, but the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that a question remained whether alternative texts should be used and ordered a new trial. Hull is also presiding over the new trial.
In testimony Monday as the trial opened, Frost said: “Our children’s imaginations have to be bounded,” adding that young minds cannot be permitted to go beyond “scriptural limitations.”
“God created man and breathed into him the breath of life and created a soul,” she testified before a packed courtroom. “The world of God is the totality of my beliefs.”
Arrest Charge Is Appealed
Frost was arrested for trespassing in 1983 after she attempted to remove her daughter Sarah from the second-grade reading class at Church Hill Elementary School. Frost later sued for false arrest and won a $70,000 judgment against the school board that both sides have appealed.
Despite the national support the Church Hill families have drawn, they appear to have little backing in their own hometown. In December of 1983, about 800 people gathered at Church Hill Elementary School to voice their opposition and formed two counter groups: Citizens Advocacy for Right to Education and Students Against COBS.
“I find very little support for what they’re espousing,” the Rev. Gary Gerhardt, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Church Hill, told an Atlanta Constitution reporter recently.
The Tennessee case is similar to one in Alabama in which hundreds of fundamentalist Christians are asking a federal district judge to expunge from the state’s reading curriculum any reference to “secular humanism.” The Alabama case is expected to go to trial in November in Mobile.