Colorado Legislator Seeks Cutoff of Funds To Schools Teaching
A fight against the teaching of "secular humanism" in public schools, waged since last spring by the chairman of the House education committee in the Colorado legislature, could soon be continued in court.
The campaign against the "anti-God religion" led by Representative Robert J. Stephenson, a Republican from Colorado Springs, has caused quite a stir in the state.
It has received regular attention in the press, has prompted a review of Mr. Stephenson's legal charges by the state attorney general's office, has caused the Colorado State Board of Education to issue a statement supporting the policy of strong local control of textbook and curriculum matters, and has resulted in a statement from a group of Colorado Springs clergymen saying that "the ultra-conservative dogma that Stephenson seems to want to substitute [for secular humanism] frightens us much more."
Mr. Stephenson has charged that the teaching of secular humanism in the public schools violates the state constitution, which prohibits allocating tax dollars to districts that promote religion. Secular humanism, he says, was defined as a religion in a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court case called Torcaso v. Watkins.
In that ruling, the Court struck down a Maryland requirement that a person declare his belief in the existence of God in order to be eligible to hold public office. Saying that the state could not favor a religion that posited the existence of one God, the Court named several "religions" that do not do so, including Buddhism, Taoism, "ethical culture," and secular humanism.
The tenets of "secular humanism" are contained in the Humanist Manifesto, I and II, which appeared in 1933 and 1973. The first volume contains the 15 numbered principles that comprise the basis of humanist thought. These principles include a rejection of man's traditional belief in God, affirmed faith in science and reason, and a call for man to create his own system of eth-ics. Among the 34 signers of the first Humanist Manifesto was education theorist John Dewey.
Mr. Stephenson said he became interested in the issue of secular humanism in the schools during a town meeting last April in Grand Junction, Colo., during which the superintendent of schools admitted that secular humanism was taught in his and "every other district" in the state.
"That put us in violation of the state constitution," Mr. Stephenson said. He said he then tried to get the state commissioner of education, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate to do something about the matter, but without success.
In February, Mr. Stephenson requested lists of textbooks and curriculum materials from the state's 181 school districts and received "20 or 30" lists.
As a result of this activity, the state board of education recently declared support for the constitutionally defined concept of local curriculum control, but Mr. Stephenson said he is not trying to tamper with that.
"I just want to get out of the constitutional violation," he said. "To do that you have to either remove the money or remove the humanism."
Mr. Stephenson said he can either try to withhold state money from districts that teach secular humanism, or, with the help of local parents, go to court in one or more of the districts.
In Colorado, about 55 percent of the average district's funding comes from the state.
Calvin M. Frazier, Colorado's commissioner of education, said he hopes the matter can be kept out of court.
Sometime soon, Mr. Frazier, the Speaker of the House, and others plan to discuss Mr. Stephenson's potential legal challenge with him. "We want to see if there really is a basis for withdrawing local funds," Mr. Frazier said. "I don't think he has a basis for a legal right to do so, based on the argument that secular humanism is a religion," he said. "It's such a nebulous thing. Have the courts defined religion? We haven't been able to find it."