Blogs > Cliopatria > Naomi Schaefer Riley: No, The School Did Not Try to Ban the Declaration of Independence

Mar 25, 2005 4:54 pm

Naomi Schaefer Riley: No, The School Did Not Try to Ban the Declaration of Independence

Naomi Schaefer Riley, in the WSJ (3-25-05):

[Ms. Riley is the author of "God on the Quad."]

Many of us remember the headline, "Declaration of Independence banned from classroom." Just before Thanksgiving, the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit against the Cupertino, Calif., school district and issued a press release with that claim at the top--and all hell broke loose.

Talk radio and TV rushed to the aid of Steven Williams, a public-school teacher and professed Christian who had apparently suffered religious discrimination at the hands of a martinet-principal. Not allowed to teach the Declaration of Independence? Was it possible? People all over the country began contacting the Stevens Creek Elementary School. The court of public opinion's verdict was swift: Someone had pushed the cause of secularism into new realms of absurdity and abuse.

A nice, neat, outrageous story. But was it true? Luckily, the wheels of justice grind slowly, giving us a chance for a second look. On March 30, District Judge James Ware will hear the first motion of the civil suit. He'll have a lot to consider.

It turns out that the Declaration had not been "banned." It still appears in the school's fifth-grade textbook and hangs from classroom walls. The real claim is narrower. The suit alleges that, for religious reasons, Mr. Williams was forced to get approval from the principal before handing out supplemental materials to his fifth-grade class, and among those materials, on one occasion, was an excerpt from the Declaration. How did it come about that the school's principal, Patti Vidmar, withheld her approval from this noble text? According to Mark Davis, the school district's counsel, Mr. Williams had become the subject of "a couple of formal and some informal complaints" because of the frequency and alleged inappropriateness of his mentions of faith in the classroom. He had become a born-again Christian in spring 2001.

Michael Zimmers's daughter, in Mr. Williams's class last year, told her father on the second day of school that her teacher didn't seem to be "respecting" other people's religions. As the year went on, her father says, she told him that Mr. Williams seemed to talk about Jesus "about a hundred times a day." Nathalie Schuler Ferro, a PTO board member and parent of two children at Stevens Creek, was told by other parents that Mr. Williams's students were sometimes asked to say "amen" when someone got an answer right and that one math test included the formula "God + Jesus = ____." (Ms. Ferro notes in an interview that, as a Catholic who was once asked to explain Christmas to her child's kindergarten class, she is hardly anti-Christian.) ...

Ultimately, Ms. Vidmar--a Christian herself, who got permission at Stevens Creek for an after-school Good News Bible club--stepped in. She asked Mr. Williams to show her lesson plans mentioning God or religion. She approved some, like the one showing C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories to be Christian allegory. But others, like the lesson on Easter and the Resurrection, she told him to omit.

According to California's fifth-grade history standards, teachers are supposed to explain the "creation of a new nation . . . founded on the Judeo-Christian heritage" and to give an account of the religious nature of the American colonies. Mr. Williams perhaps rightly felt that the textbook--which The New Yorker in a recent article called a "model of multicultural sensitivity"--did not help him fulfill these requirements. So he sought materials that did.

Things came to a head when Mr. Williams presented Ms. Vidmar with George Washington's "Prayer Journal," "Religious Clauses in State Constitutions" and "What Great Leaders Have Said About the Bible." When she rejected these materials, he returned with the idea of teaching the part of the Declaration about "the Creator" and "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God." When Ms. Vidmar said "no," the tale of a ban began. Judge Ware must now decide whether Ms. Vidmar had cause to scrutinize and reject some of Mr. Williams's more zealous lesson plans....

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