A history lesson for the Cupertino Union School District

A nation's moral life is the foundation of its culture.' 

—— Robert Bork

"Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law."

—— Thomas Jefferson, 1819

In a recent panel of the comic strip 'La Cucaracha' (www. lacucaracha.com), an elementary school teacher intones to her students:  'The Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution.... They then persecuted the Indians for having their own cultural and religious beliefs.' 

'What are they doing now?' a student asks. 

'Moving in on the rest of us,' comes the zany reply. 

Neither funny nor profound, the comic strip's compendious cheap shot targets not just the original settlers, themselves the victims of religious persecution, but modern—day Christians.  Religious persecution, ironically, is both its theme and its purpose.     

The point of view this strip grimly encapsulates is not isolated to the comic pages, where children are likely and expected to be influenced, however subtly, by it.  Rather, it inhabits the halls of elementary education, where its indoctrination can have lasting effect on a child's moral character. 

It is another irony of this comic strip (so flatulent with humorless irony) that it potentially depicts what is actually occurring in school. 

Where the neutralization of Christmas yields a holiday dispossessed of its historical religious antecedent and cultural significance, students are fed distortions that obscure America's  heritage on the basis of mistaken concepts of the freedoms broadly written into the Bill of Rights. It is appropriate to hand out condoms but inappropriate to push abstinence.  Moral values are the thing of religion, and religion, we are commanded to believe, is in—compatible with tax—dollar supported institutional rearing. 

But in Cupertino, California, where iPods are born and innovators expect their iKids to get good iEducations, facts should count for something.  When fifth grade history teacher Steve Williams sued the Cupertino Union School District on November 22, his grievances placed in controversy his duty to truthfully teach the origins of American democ—racy, including its ideological foundations. 

His lawsuit (Stephen J. Williams vs. Patricia Vidmar, et. al, USDC, Northern Dis—trict, San Jose Div., Case No. C044946), charges the school district with violating his right to speak about religion, and, particularly, the nation's Christian history. 

The complaint alleges that the teacher was forbidden by his school principal from distributing supplemental handouts that included excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, various state constitutions, John Adams's diary, George Washington's journal, 'Frame of Government of Pennsylvania' by William Penn and 'The Rights of Colonists' by Samuel Adams as well as handouts entitled 'What Great Leaders Have Said About the Bible', 'The Principles of Natural Law' and 'Fact Sheet:  Currency & Coins — History of 'In God We Trust''.

Williams admits wanting to distribute the handouts to explain (1) the role of religion at the nation's founding, (2) religious references in several founding documents and (3) the reasons for the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

He justifies his course plan by invoking California Education Code section 51511, which provides:

'Nothing in this code shall be construed to prevent, or exclude from the public schools, references to religion or references to or the use of religious literature, dance, music, theatre, and visual arts or other things having a religious significance when such references or uses do not constitute instruction in religious principles or aid to any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose and when such references or uses are incidental to or illustrative of matters properly included in the course of study.'

It may come as news to some that America was settled by Christians, that the majority of its founders were Christian and that Christian principles inspired our cherished establishing documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. 

It is provocative to mention these facts to non—Christians, who might feel threatened by their exclusionary overtone.  In the apparent view of the defendant school officials, teaching these facts offends Establishment Clause restrictions and inches perilously close to proselytizing.  Williams is a Christian and must therefore have an agenda.

In spite of the school district's overabundant exercise of caution, no California court has specifically addressed whether public school teachers run afoul of the Establishment Clause or California's No Preference Clause by teaching the religious and ideological basis of the American Revolution.  In fact, not a single case turns up in a legal website search for cases citing section 51511.

The focus of California appellate decisions examining religion in schools has been limited to:

  •  Religious invocations and benedictions at public high school graduation ceremonies (Sands v. Morongo Unified School District (1991) 53 Cal.3d 863; Bennett v. Livermore Unified School District (1987) 193 Cal.App.3d 1012),
  •  the right of voluntary student Bible study clubs to meet and conduct activities on campus during the school day (Johnson v. Huntington Beach Union High School Dist. (1977) 68 Cal.App.3d 1), and
  •  Distribution of a religious club's flyers on a school district's high school campuses and religious advertisement in high school yearbooks (Perumal v. Saddleback Valley Unified School Dist. (1988) 198 Cal.App.3d 64).

    And, of course, the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance (Michael A. Newdow v. U.S. Congress, et al.) remains known only to Ninth Circuit justices. 

    Notwithstanding the absence of any direct state authority, the United States Supreme Court has spoken more than once on the subject.  

    Striking down New York's state—mandated or state—sponsored prayer laws, Justice Hugo Black noted in Engle v. Vitale (1962) 370 U.S. 421 that while a prayer by any definition constitutes a religious activity, the teaching of history is incomplete without an acknowledgement of religion's role in it:

    'There is of course nothing in the decision reached here that is inconsistent with the fact that school children and others are officially encouraged to express love for our country by reciting historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence which contain references to the Deity or by singing officially espoused anthems which include the composer's professions of faith in a Supreme Being, or with the fact that there are many manifestations in our public life of belief in God. Such patriotic or ceremonial occasions bear no true resemblance to the unquestioned religious exercise that the State of New York has sponsored in this instance.'

    At a time when West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd would require federally mandated instruction of the Constitution, selective censorship of history lessons redacting the Declaration of Independence of references to God seems of another age. Indeed, the school district's policies are in spirit the equal of Savonarola's bonfire of the vanities, a purgation of the past's splendor and of mankind's achievements. 

    'The task of separating the secular from the religious in education is one of magnitude, intricacy and delicacy,' wrote Justice Robert H. Jackson in McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) 333 U.S. 203 (concurring). Religion, he observed, is embedded in everything we do:

    'I should suppose it is a proper, if not an indispensable, part of preparation for a worldly life to know the roles that religion and religions have played in the tragic story of mankind. The fact is that, for good or for ill, nearly everything in our cul—ture worth transmitting, everything which gives meaning to life, is saturated with religious influences.'

    To create a 'sweeping constitutional doctrine' adopting and enforcing rules and regula—tions prohibiting all instruction of religious education in all public schools would not be practical, he surmised.

    Dawa, the use of taxpayer—funded schools to proselytize for Islam, is creeping into America's public school system with subtle urgency.  A website (www.dawanet.com) advises that 'Schools are ... fertile grounds where the seeds of Islam can be sowed inside the hearts of non—Muslim students.' 

    As this alarming trend takes root, a nation's history can disappear like dandelion seeds scattering in a breeze.  Although the Founding Fathers expected the inculcation of moral character to be part of a student's education, Steve Williams only expects to teach the facts as history records them, guarding them against the blowing winds of political expediency. 

    In one of the documents from which Mr. Williams was ordered not to instruct, Samuel Adams addresses 'The Rights of the Colonists':  'Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty, in matters spiritual and temporal, is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature, as well as by the law of nations and all well—grounded municipal laws, which must have their foundation in the former.'

    This is the education Cupertino school officials want hidden from students.  It is a history lesson Cupertino school officials need to learn.  If certain truths are held to be self—evident, not even they can extirpate them in a bonfire of reductive educational policy. They may have the power and even the right to enforce a policy of whitewashing history, but it is not one parents, regardless of their faith, should want to endorse.  The community should join Mr. Williams in rising up against it.  That is its right under God.

    William J. Becker, Jr is an atorney in Los Angeles