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References to God in Mich. Board Mission Statement Stir Flap

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Michigan's new Republican-dominated state school board has set off an uproar by passing a mission statement containing references to God and religion.

The board adopted an unprecedented mission statement saying it is "grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of freedom" and believes "that to teach a child created by God is a noble calling." The one-page charge, passed on a 7-to-1 vote at the board's first meeting last month, also refers to religion as "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind" and notes that the board prays for wisdom in all its decisions.

Clark Durant, a new G.O.P. member who proposed the statement immediately after the board elected him president, told local reporters that the references to God were typical of older government proclamations and documents and, in fact, were lifted from the state constitution.

Nonetheless, some civil libertarians and school officials contend the document breaches the federal and state constitutions' barriers between church and state.

Noting that the mission statement also calls for "the removal of barriers" that restrain access "to other quality educational opportunities in the marketplace of a free society," the document's critics also say it reveals a hostility toward public education and an interest in spending public money on private and parochial schools.

'Opening Salvo'?

"There are to be no misconceptions that this is a single or isolated event," said Richard H. Lobenthal, the director of the Michigan office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith and the chairman of the education committee of Mosaic, a coalition of Michigan human-rights advocates.

"It is really just an opening salvo in this larger battle," said Mr. Lobenthal, who last week was organizing efforts to protest the document and its adoption, which came after little public input.

Gary M. Doyle, the superintendent of the Bloomfield Hills school district, sent the state board a letter charging that the statement "represents an exclusive rather than an inclusive philosophy" and is "an affront to the true mission and purpose of public education."

Mr. Durant, a lawyer from Grosse Pointe who had been regarded as Republican Gov. John Engler's choice to run the board, did not return phone calls last week. In a press release issued by the state education department, he said the mission statement was intended to convey the board's "commitment to look anew" at the problems of the education system.

Meanwhile, Justin P. King, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, warned against overreaction, emphasizing that the document does not represent, or even call for, any specific policy.

The flap, he said, is, "to some extent, much ado about nothing."

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