Magazine article Church & State

When Teachers Preach: Student's Lawsuit Challenges Missouri School District's Religious Bias

Magazine article Church & State

When Teachers Preach: Student's Lawsuit Challenges Missouri School District's Religious Bias

Article excerpt

It didn't take long for Evelyn Welk to suspect that something was amiss in her 16-year-old daughter's World History class.

Two days into the class, Welk's daughter, Ashley Heckman, a sophomore at Truman High School in Independence, Mo., came home with her first reading assignment: A two-page excerpt from a sermon by the late fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher W.A. Criswell titled "The Hoaxes of Anthropology."

The sermon, first delivered by Criswell in 1957, ridicules the findings of modern anthropology and attacks evolution.

"This sermon debunked anthropological information," Welk said. "I saw it as someone trying to impose a religious ideology. An attack on evolution should not be part of a history class."

Welk was further alarmed later in the year when Ashley told her the class had watched a video about the birth and early life of Jesus Christ. The video, "Jesus and His Times: The Story Begins," was produced by the Reader's Digest Association in 1991. While the video does not take a strictly devotional approach, Welk was upset because it tends to present Jesus' birth and early life, as recorded in the Books of Luke and Matthew, as factual.

Welk contends that other aspects of teacher Chris Earley's classroom instruction were slanted toward Christianity. The doctrines of other religions, when taught, were prefaced with statements like "Muslims believe" and "Buddhists believe," she said, while "Christian doctrines were stated as fact."

As an example, Welk notes that the Paganism of the early Greeks and the rise of Judaism were barely discussed in the class. By contrast, when the class talked about the Roman Empire, Welk said, Earley spent most of the time discussing the life of Jesus and the Christianization of Rome, even though for the vast majority of its history the Roman Empire was officially Pagan.

Welk met with Earley, Principal Michael Jeffers and other school officials to resolve the problem but believed she was making little headway. The school officials, she told Church & State, were convinced that their activities were in line with the law.

"They did not believe they were doing anything unconstitutional, and we did," Welk said.

During one meeting, Welk said, Earley told her he and Jeffers would eventually "convince me why they were right."

Added Welk, "During the meeting, there were numerous implications that the only moral children were Christian children. Earley said we could not teach history without teaching religion. He seemed unable to separate his religious views from the instruction. At that point, I contacted the ACLU."

ACLU officials also met with the same school officials but were unable to resolve the matter. Suspecting that the problem might end up in court, staffers at the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri contacted Americans United and asked for help with the case.

On May 1, the two groups decided they had waited long enough and filed a lawsuit in federal court, asserting that the Independence School District had violated the First Amendment by failing to curb Earley's promotion of religion.

The Welk v. Independence School District case asserts that Earley used the World History course to promote his version of Christianity in several ways. It asks that the practices be terminated and that the school take steps to keep religious indoctrination out of the classroom.

Officials at Americans United point out that the organization does not oppose objective instruction about religion in public schools. Americans United has stated repeatedly that public schools can teach about religion's role in world and U.S. history without violating church-state separation. Such instruction, however, must be balanced and objective and intended to educate, not indoctrinate. Truman High, AU asserts, has stepped over the line.

"It's the job of parents, not public schools, to teach children religion," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. …

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