Textbooks Do Not Imperil Christians' Beliefs, 2 Courts Rule

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Copyright 1987 In the first case, a three-judge panel on Aug. 24 overturned a lower court's landmark ruling allowing students in Church Hill, Tenn., to "opt out" of a reading course that they said contained material offensive to their fundamentalist-Christian faith.

Two days later, another appellate court reversed a federal district judge's controversial decision forbidding the use of 44 textbooks in Alabama's schools on the grounds that they unconstitutionally promoted the "religion" of secular humanism.

The rulings marked the latest setbacks for fundamentalist Christians who have been fighting to have their point of view aired in public schools. In an earlier defeat, the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down a Louisiana law requiring schools to give balanced treatment to the theories of evolution and creationism.

Lawyers for the Tennessee and Alabama parents' groups minimized the potential nationwide impact of last month's decisions. They noted that eventual appeals to the Supreme Court were likely.

"We always knew that this was just an intermediate step on the way to the Supreme Court," said Michael Farris, the lawyer for the Christian parents in the Tennessee case. "The Court is going to have the final say on the law."

Mr. Farris said his clients would ask the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to rehear the case before seeking review before the Supreme Court.

Groups advocating church-state separation, meanwhile, predicted that the appellate decisions would stem what they described as an upsurge in attempts by conservative Christians to censor public-school curricula.

"They've made no secret of their intention to carry out these kinds of actions in every state in the nation,4no matter what risk to the education of our nation's children," said John H. Buchanan, chairman of People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that assisted in the defense of the challenged books in both cases. The decisions, he added, "will help slow that drive."

Reading Series Challenged

The first case, Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education, stemmed from a 1983 decision by the board to adopt a Holt, Rinehart, & Winston reading series for use in grades 1 through 8. Seven fundamentalist-Christian families filed suit against the board late that year,charging that the books as a whole promoted values--including feminism, religious tolerance, and situational ethics--that ran counter to their religious beliefs.

Last October, U.S. District Judge Thomas G. Hull ruled that the children's First Amendment right to free exercise of religion was violated by mere exposure to the books. He ordered the board to permit the parents to teach their children reading at home.

A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court voted unanimously to reject Judge Hull's decision.

"The plaintiffs did not produce a single student or teacher to testify that any student was ever required to affirm his or her belief or disbelief in any idea or practice mentioned in the various stories and passages contained in the Holt series," wrote Chief Judge Pierce Lively in the court's main opinion.

"However," he said, "the plaintiffs appeared to assume that materials clearly presented as poetry, fiction, and even 'make believe' in the Holt series were presented as facts which the students were required to believe. Nothing in the record supports this assumption."

'A Civil Tolerance'

Prior Supreme Court rulings requiring public schools to be tolerant of all religious views refer to "a civil tolerance, not a religious one," Judge Lively noted. "It does not require a person to accept any other religion as the equal of the one to which that person adheres. It merely requires a recognition that in a pluralistic society we must 'live and let live."'

"If the Hawkins County schools had required the plaintiff students either to believe or say they believe that 'all religions are merely different roads to God,"' he continued, "this would be a different case."

Because the families did not demonstrate that their rights had been violated, Judge Lively said, it was unnecessary to determine whether a "compelling state interest" justified such a burden.

Judge Cornelia G. Kennedy wrote separately to note that, even if the parents had proven their case of religious discrimination, their interests would have been outweighed by those of the board. Permitting the children to opt out of the reading course, she said, "would result in substantial disruption to the public schools" and in "a public school sysel10ltem impossible to administer."

Judge Danny J. Boggs wrote a third opinion in which he "reluctantly'' concluded that Supreme Court precedents required a decision in favor of the board.

"As this case now reaches us, the school board rejects any effort to reach out and take in these children and their concerns," Judge Boggs wrote. "As we ultimately decide here, on the present state of constitutional law, the school board is indeed entitled to say, 'My way or hit the highway."'

"Thus ... pupils may indeed be expelled if they will not read from the King James Bible, so long as it is only used as literature, and not taught as religious truth," he wrote. "[J]ewish students may not assert a burden on their religion if their reading materials overwhelmingly provide a negative view of Jews or factual or historical issues important to Jews, so long as such materials do not assert any propositions as religious truth."

Secular Humanism

In the second case, Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit voted unanimously to overturn U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand's March 4 ruling that secular humanism was being taught in the county's schools in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

The Smith case is an outgrowth of an earlier suit that resulted in a 1985 decision by the Supreme Court striking down an Alabama law that permitted students to begin their school day with a moment of silence for prayer or meditation.

Following that ruling, Judge Hand realigned as plaintiffs 624 parents, teachers, and students who had entered the case to defend the prayer law, and agreed to consider their argument that secular humanism was being taught in schools.

In his ruling, Judge Hand held that humanism was in fact a religion, and that 44 textbooks used by the county district were "imbued4with [humanistic] religious assumptions in their discussions of human relationships." He also held that the books violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion by systematically omitting religious aspects of American history.

Humanism Not Promoted

In its ruling, the 11th Circuit Court did not address the question of whether secular humanism is a religion for First Amendment purposes. But even assuming that it is, the court said, it is not being promoted in the challenged textbooks.

The panel reached its ruling by applying the second leg of the three-part test set by the Supreme Court for determining violations of the establishment clause--namely, whether a state action has the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion.

"[U]se of the challenged textbooks has the primary effect of conveying information that is essentially neutral in its religious content to the school children who utilize the books; none of these books convey a message of governmental approval of secular humanism," wrote Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. in an opinion joined by Judges Thomas C. Clark and Joe Eaton.

The judges also rejected Judge Hand's ruling that the books' omission of facts about the role of religion in American history represented discrimination against a belief in God.

"There simply is nothing in this record to indicate that omission of certain facts regarding religion from these textbooks of itself constituted an advancement of secular humanism or an active hostility towards theistic religion," Judge Johnson wrote.

"While these textbooks may be inadequate from an educational standpoint," he continued, "the wisdom of an educational policy or its efficiency from an educational point of view is not germane to the constitutional issue of whether that policy violates the establishment clause."

Vol. 07, Issue 01

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories





Sponsor Insights

Stop cobbling together your EdTech

Integrate Science and ELA with Informational Text

To Address Chronic Absenteeism, Dig into the Data

Can self-efficacy impact growth for ELLs?

Disruptive Tech Integration for Meaningful Learning

5 Game-Changers in Today’s Digital Learning Platforms

Keep Your Schools Safe and Responsive to Real Challenges

Hiding in Plain Sight - 7 Common Signs of Dyslexia in the Classroom

The research: Reading Benchmark Assessments

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

All Students Are Language Learners: The Imagine Learning Language Advantage™

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

How to Support All Students with Equitable Pathways

2019 K-12 Digital Content Report

3-D Learning & Assessment for K–5 Science

Climate Change, LGBTQ Issues, Politics & Race: Instructional Materials for Teaching Complex Topics

Closing the Science Achievement Gap

Evidence-based Coaching: Key Driver(s) of Scalable Improvement District-Wide

Advancing Literacy with Large Print

Research Sheds New Light on the Reading Brain

3 Unique Learner Profiles for Emerging Bilinguals

Effective Questioning Practices to Spur Thinking

Empower Reading Teachers with Proven Literacy PD

Dyslexia: How to Identify Warning Signs at Every Grade

Increased Social Connectedness Through Digital Peer Learning

Student Engagement Lessons from 3 Successful Districts

Response to Intervention Centered on Student Learning

The Nonnegotiable Attributes of Effective Feedback

SEE MORE Insights >