Creationism in public schools? Abstinence-only sex education?
Sad to say, but the curriculum battles faced by Mark Zingarelli and the residents of Stanwood, Wash., are not isolated incidents, but individual skirmishes in a war that could determine the fate of public education--and perhaps public life--in America.
At issue for religious-right groups across the country are not just particular science or sex-ed curricula, but the whole concept of a secular culture, itself something the religious right vehemently opposes.
In fact, Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson predicts, "The radical left will lose its hold, and by the end of the decade control of the major institutions of society will be firmly in the hands of those who share [a] pro-family, religious, traditional-values perspective."
The religious right had hoped to win this apocalyptic battle in the national arena. Witness Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign, and the right's performance at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, where the Christian Coalition claimed to have the largest delegate group--300 out of 2,000.
But after the hatefest in Houston, the Republicans' public approval plummeted. So what's a religious right-er to do?
Go local and build political power from the bottom up.
One of the best ways to do that is through the schools. Religious-right leaders like Dr. Robert Simonds--founder and president of the California-based, 210,000-member Citizens for Excellence in Education--see schools as a battleground on which to "confront the world and its abominable sins of homosexuality/lesbianism, witchcraft, necromancy, promiscuous sex for children, and atheistic socialism." (For a profile of Simonds, see "Christian Reich?" in our Nov./Dec. 1991 issue.)
During the 1992-1993 school year, religious-right candidates ran in 140 school-board races in New York and San Diego alone. Though he won't offer names or locations, Simonds claims that between 1989 and 1992, CEE helped 5,472 members attain school-board positions. In 1993, he claims, more than 6,000 members were elected--out of 15,500 school boards nationwide.
Once in power, Christian board members challenge curricula and programs they view as threatening.
In Vista, Calif., for instance, a right-wing-majority school board successfully adopted a policy to teach creationism in history and language-arts classes--thus skirting the Supreme Court's ban on creationism in science classes.
Just south of Vista, fundamentalists on the La Mesa-Spring Valley school board tried to block adoption of a federally funded school-breakfast program for underprivileged students, labeling such efforts "government interference in family life."
In Perrin, Texas, fundamentalists stopped a school-based self-esteem program--similar to ones that have successfully reduced discipline problems in schools nationwide--for being "New Age." One objector clarified, "If you don't like the term 'New Age teaching,' you can call it witchcraft."
And across the country, the religious right is fighting to defeat Outcomes-Based Education, a curriculum-reform program geared to help students master specific learning goals. OBE is currently under consideration--and under attack by right-wing groups--in all 50 states.
One strategy the right has used to win school-board seats across the country is "stealth campaigning": religious-right candidates reveal their positions and political affiliations only to like-minded Christians. Such candidates often refuse to answer questions from the press, engage in public debates, or address questionnaires put out by groups such as the League of Women Voters. Because the percentage of voters needed to win is so low--often only 6 percent or 7 percent--this tactic has been very successful.
But the right doesn't rely on stealth campaigning alone. To increase their voter base, religious-right candidates play the hot-button issues of sex/AIDS education and homosexuality, both guaranteed to attract parents who wouldn't otherwise sign on with the rest of the right's program.
"If they go into a school district and try to have 'Of Mice and Men' banned, a lot of people are going to dismiss them as crazy," says Deanna Duby of People for the American Way, a 300,000-member "constitutional liberties organization." (Steinbeck's was the most challenged novel during the past decade.) "But if they're trying to get a sex-education program banned, and they say it teaches homosexuality, they're going to get a lot of allies who are afraid their children are going to grow up gay."
Last May, the Christian Coalition and the New York City Archdiocese used just such a strategy to shoot down a multicultural elementary-school curriculum by labeling it "a conspiracy to teach sodomy to first-graders." In fact, there was no mention of lesbian or gay sexuality in the entire 450-page curriculum guide, and only scattered references to families with gay or lesbian parents. But by suggesting that the schools chose multiculturalism over the three R's, the right was able to harness the discontent of disenfranchised parents--many from lower-income brackets--who felt public schools were failing their children.
Truth be told, the religious right doesn't believe in public education. "Many of the organizations advise members not to put their children in public schools," says Robert Boston of the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "They recommend home schooling or Christian academies."
But right-wing groups do advise their members to run for public-school boards, Boston says. Their aim? To "Christianize" public schools. "And when they say Christianize, they have a very specific understanding of the word, which reflects a theological view held by only a minority of Americans."
Perhaps the right is trying to make public schools so embattled that communities will throw up their hands and offer what might seem like a simpler alternative: public financing of private schooling. Indeed, the National Coordinating Council, an unofficial political arm of the right-wing Coalition on Revival, has called for the abolition of public schools by the year 2000.
After the hatefest in Houston, Republicans' public approval plummeted. So what are religious right-ers to do? Go local, hide their agenda, and play hot-button issues like sex ed.
WHAT TO DO
If there's anything the religious right has made clear, it's that a few committed individuals can effect significant social change.
So if the religious right wants to "Christianize" your school district, take a lesson from the Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education: organize, organize, organize.
Since most education matters are decided locally, you can organize on various levels, from monitoring your school board to keeping tabs on who's running for office. (Candidates who refuse to participate in public debates or press interviews almost surely support positions they'd rather you didn't know about.)
Work in coalition with local clergy and religious groups; after all, fundamentalists haven't cornered the market on faith, and it's important that curriculum controversies don't appear to pit secularists against believers.
Check the religious right's "facts," and look for lapses in logic. Members of right-wing groups are notorious for their efforts to misrepresent the truth. (A "fact sheet" now making the rounds in religious-right circles on the East Coast incorrectly tells readers that HIV is smaller than pores in latex condoms, and, therefore, condoms can't protect people from HIV.)
Involve young people in your organizing efforts. No one can articulate better the importance of sex/AIDS education than the teenager whose life it might save.
Get organized early. A lot of religious-right candidates win elections because not enough people pay attention to local races for school-board or council positions.
Most importantly, don't forget to vote.
For help, contact one of the organizations listed below. And check your Yellow Pages--groups like the Lighthouse Institute in Massachusetts have organized to fight religious-right activity in local communities across the country.
Liz Galst is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix newspaper.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
- People for the American Way, 2000 M Street N.W., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 467-4999
- National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Fight the Right Project, 1151 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, (617) 492-6393
- American Civil Liberties Union, 132 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036, (212) 944-9800
- Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 8120 Fenton Street, Silver Spring, MD 20910, (301) 589-3707
- National Center for Science Education, P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709-0477, (510) 526-1674