Tennessee Parents Challenge Textbooks

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A federal district judge in Tennessee will hear closing arguments later this month in a controversial case that questions whether public-school students have a right to be shielded from textbooks that offend their religious beliefs.

In post-trial briefs filed with the court late last month, lawyers for the state and the Hawkins County school board argued that a court order granting the students a right to alternative reading materials "would create chaos in the classroom" and "disrupt the state's program of public education."

The students' families, meanwhile, countered that a decision in their favor would bring both "greater freedom of choice [and) peace to a nation which is torn apart to a greater extent every day over the questions of religion and education."

Echoes of Scope

The case, Mozert v. Hawkins County Public Schools was tried over eight days in July, 61 years to the month after Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant matched wits in another Tennessee courtroom in the famous "Scopes monkey trial."

But unlike the Scopes trial, which involved the right of the state to ban the teaching of evolution, the Mozert case probes the broader issue of whether fundamentalist Christian students have a right to be free from exposure to concepts not compatible with their beliefs--concepts that may be as varied as idol worship, nontraditional sex roles, and situational ethics.

The lawsuit focuses on the Hawkins County school board's decision before the start of the 1983-84 school year to adopt as part of its curriculum for grades 1 through 8 a reading series published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

During the course of the academic term, several parents began scrutinizing their children's' texts and found a host of stories and assignments that offended their fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

Eleven of the families filed suit against the district in December I 1983, after the school board denied their request to supply the children with alternative textbooks. Their suit seeks unspecified monetary damages and a permanent injunction barring the Hawkins County board from forcing the students to use the textbooks and from punishing them if they refuse.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull dismissed all complaints against the board in early 1984. But a federal appeals court overturned his decision in June 1985 and instructed him to schedule a trial to resolve disputed facts in the case.

In particular, the appeals panel directed Judge Hull to decide whether the reading texts unconstitutionally impinge on the families' religious beliefs and, if so, whether "a compelling state interest" overrides the families' right to free exercise of religion.

"If the parents win, a clear message will be sent nationwide that parents do have a right to have a say about what their children are taught in public schools," said Rebecca Redd Hagelin, a spokesman for Concerned Women of America, the conservative public-interest group that is financing the parents' lawsuit.

"What is at stake here is whether people who have religious objections to certain ideas can force their public school to provide their children with a curriculum tailored to their own particular beliefs," said Timothy Dyk, a Washington lawyer whose defense of the school district is being financed by People for the American Way, a liberal civil-liberties group.

Vol. 06, Issue 01, Page 14

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