Authors Sue To Overturn Ban On 'Secular Humanism' Funds
A group of prominent authors has asked a federal district court to strike down a little-known education statute that forbids the teaching of "secular humanism" in certain federally funded magnet schools.
The science writer Isaac Asimov, who is also president of the American Humanists Society; the photographer and author Gordon Parks, whose book The Learning Tree has been banned in some schools; and the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, joined with a number of New York teachers and students in bringing the suit against the U.S. Education Department and other federal agencies that might become involved in enforcing the measure.
The suit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in New York, is being supported by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a civil-rights advocacy group.
The focus of the suit is an amendment to the 1984 Magnet Schools Assistance Act that prohibits the use of funds under the law from being used for courses "the substance of which is secular humanism." The magnet-school measure was incorporated into a larger bill authorizing programs to improve mathematics and science instruction. (See3Education Week, Sept. 19, 1984.)
The term secular humanism was purposely left undefined in the legislation, the bill's floor manager in the House, the late Representative Carl D. Perkins, said at the time. During debate on the measure, he said it was up to local education officials to determine what was permissible or impermissible course content.
Opponents of the measure, however, fear that school districts might face a cutoff of their magnet-school funds or might be prevented from participating in the program altogether if complaints are raised about their teaching of controversial subjects such as sex education or moral reasoning.
Prominent conservative activists such as Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum have been waging a battle against the teaching of secular humanism, which they have generally characterized as a philosophy that rejects the concept of a supreme being and positions man as the master of his fate.
The Education Department is in the process of choosing participants for the magnet-school program, and thus no school has yet had its funding threatened under the secular-humanism clause.
But in June the department published regulations of the magnet-school program that reiterated the prohibition against secular humanism. At that point, said Nicholas Poser, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, his clients began preparing their lawsuit.
"We don't want to interfere with the awarding of money, but we would like to see that obnoxious prohibition struck out of the law," Mr. Poser said. "Both so the federal government will not use it as a criterion in determining whom to award money, but more importantly, so that no school feels under any pressure not to teach certain subjects while receiving funding."
The lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the clause on three grounds, Mr. Poser explained.
First, he said, it violates free speech, by "taking a particular set of ideas and saying that at least within the magnet-school program, these ideas are off-limits."
It also violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, he argued. "The motivation for the legislation is to remove from schools ideas which are thought to be in opposition to particular religious views," Mr. Poser said. "The government has no business in assisting fundamentalists in removing ideas which they find offensive."
Finally, he said, the law is unconstitutionally vague, because it offers no definition of secular humanism. "In trying to abide by the law, school boards would have to strike down a tremendous number of subjects that could be considered secular humanism, such as evolution or sex education," Mr. Poser added.
Ronald P. Preston, education aide for Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Republican of Utah who introduced the clause into the bill, dismissed the action as a "nusiance suit."
"It's a discretionary program," Mr. Preston said. "Sometimes money is spent on one thing, sometimes on another. The money is for directly improving academics, not for secular humanism."
A spokesman for the Education Department said the agency would not comment on the case while it was being litigated.