Today the ACLU of Southern California filed suit in federal court against the Belridge School District, a public school district near Bakersfield, in Kern County, California, challenging the constitutionality of the use of textbooks that convey a particular religious perspective on a wide range of classroom subjects, and that are replete with verbatim biblical passages and prayers for students to read. The suit also challenges the display of a banner on the walls of the Belridge School cafeteria that sets forth a Psalm.
The lead plaintiffs in the suit are Veronica Van Ry, a single mother, and her twelve-year- old daughter, Rita Elliott. Rita, who is about to begin the eighth grade, has attended Belridge School since the fourth grade and had hoped to graduate from the eight grade there this year. Ms. Van Ry thought it vital for her daughter to remain at Belridge, and so she received a transfer to enable Rita to continue at Belridge even though they now live in another school district. At the same time, however, Ms. Van Ry was deeply concerned that the Belridge School had adopted a new curriculum with religious textbooks at its core for the 1999-2000 school year. In the end, Ms. Van Ry decided that she simply could not stand idle and permit the school district to teach out of religious textbooks; thus she removed Rita from Belridge before the new school year began on August 23. "It is not the place for public schools to teach religious tenets to students. The constitution leaves that job to parents and children together, in their homes and in their houses of worship," said Ms. Van Ry.
A Beka Book, Inc., the publisher of the textbooks that the school district is using for instruction in kindergarten through the eighth grade at Belridge School, is, in the company's own words,"unashamedly Christian and traditional in its approach to education." Its stated mission is to "build the content of every textbook on the foundation of God's Word." That mission is plainly reflected in the pages of its textbooks.
For example, the introduction to A Beka's third-grade American history textbooks states :
Throughout the history of America, God has heard the prayers of those who love him and their country. The names of many of these praying Christians are not written in history books, but their prayers were heard by God.
Likewise, in an exercise that lists ten sentences or sentence fragments, the third-grade English textbook includes the following:
2. Noah built an ark for God.
7. Jesus loves children.
Similar themes resonate in A Beka's eighth-grade history text. The A Beka website states that, in this book, "[t]hrough the story of America's rise to greatness, students will learn to recognize the hand of God in history and to appreciate the influence of Christianity in the government, economics, and society." The website also states that "biblical principles" are employed to teach mathematics to seventh-graders, and that "[u]nlike secular grammar books," A Beka's eighth- grade grammar text emphasizes "Christian" principles.
The use of A Beka textbooks is entirely consistent with the stated mission of the Belridge School District, which is said to be based on the principle of "honor[ing] God" . a principle that the website says "can only be accomplished through a unified effort between families, school, and God." The school district's homepage even contains a direct quotation from the Bible.
The school district has carried out its religious mission beyond the use of A Beka textbooks. On the wall of the Belridge School cafeteria hangs a banner, that states, "This is the Day That the Lord Has Made". a biblical psalm. It is telling that no other banners, posters, or signs hang on the cafeteria walls.
In addition to Veronica Van Ry and Rita Elliott, a retired Methodist minister, Milton Andrews, is a plaintiff in the suit. Mr. Andrews, who has university degrees in divinity studies, is a taxpayer in Kern County and California. He strongly objects to the use of taxpayer money for expenditures by the school district in connection with the use of religious-oriented textbooks in public school classrooms and the display of the religious banner on public school walls.
"Nothing in the constitution prevents a public school from integrating the Bible into its curriculum in an objective manner as part of the study of history, literature, comparative religions, or ethics and moral values," said Michael Small, chief counsel of the ACLU- SC. "That is not this case, however. Here, the school district is not teaching about religion; it is, instead, teaching religion. It has embarked on a frightening crusade in which it seeks to indoctrinate behind the schoolhouse gates impressionable students . as young as five years old . into accepting a prescribed religious orthodoxy."
The ACLU-SC complaint argues that the school district's use of A Beka textbooks and its display of the religious banner on the walls of the Belridge School reflect an impermissible religious purpose, in plain violation of the religious freedoms that are guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. The complaint further argues that the school district's actions have the impermissible effect of advancing religion generally and endorsing one religious sect over all others . again, in plain violation of the Establishment Clause.
ACLU-SC Staff Attorney Peter Eliasberg said, "This is a case about a public school that inculcates students with its own proscribed version of what God is, who God chooses to listen to, and how one gets on God's good side. It is shocking that public school officials would trample on religious freedom in that way, and turn a blind eye to four-decades worth of fundamental constitutional principles that flatly forbid public schools from converting classrooms into pulpits in which school officials conduct what amount to religious exercises and rituals."
In the papers it filed today, the ACLU has asked a federal court to issue a temporary restraining order that would compel the school district immediately to cease using religious-oriented textbooks for classroom instruction, and to take down the religious banner now displayed on the walls of the school.