#1 1. Jerry Agar's column in The Kansas City Star
#2 2. Comment by Sandy Sims, editor of the Cupertino Courier
#3 3. Letters from fellow teachers and others
#4 4. A GRUBBY LITTLE WITCH HUNT by Andrew Gumbel: The battle over revisionist Christian history in Cupertino bodes ill for the nation
We are into the season of suing God. Suing against manger scenes and to stop the public display of “Merry Christmas,” or to tear down the public menorah while singing “separation of church and state.”
It is wrong. A belief in God and his power over us is the very essence of the system that allows so much religious and personal freedom. The Founders believed that God, and not the Founders, gave you the freedom to publicly voice your opinion of government and God.
Recently in California, history teacher Stephen Williams was prevented from handing out the Declaration of Independence because of the document's mention of God. When we deny the true history of a governmental system anchored in a belief in God, we will lose our moorings completely, along with the rights that made America the beacon of freedom it has been and continues to be to much of the world.
The Founding Fathers were of various faiths, but they signed their names to a document that read that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
The Bill of Rights recognizes that government may not take what God has given.
Separation of church and state appears nowhere in the declaration or the Constitution. The First Amendment simply prohibits the federal (not the state) government from establishing a specific state religion.
Interference by the federal government in our religious practices at home or in public is tyranny, and it is what the Founders wanted to prevent. Those turning the Constitution upside down should be careful what they wish for.
The Founders, unlike kings, knew it wasn't their right to take our life and liberty. They set up a system in which the government derives its power from the people and its moral guidance from God.
Because we elect our representatives, we can be a godly country with godly leaders while never becoming a theocracy.
If we were to truly achieve a separation of church and state we would have set up a government that has no moral authority above itself.
What then will be our rights? Whatever the government says they are. What Uncle Sam giveth, Uncle Sam taketh away. Who says he can't?
I believe God says he can't. The Founding Fathers believed it as well.
Thank God they did.
Jerry Agar is a talk show host on News Radio 980 KMBZ in Kansas City. He lives in Overland Park.
© 2004 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansascity.com
A little misinformation can stir a lynch mob
By Sandy Sims
When I heard that a teacher was suing the principal at Stevens Creek Elementary School for not allowing him to use the Declaration of Independence in class because it contained references to God, I laughed. This is so silly, I thought. "It's ridiculous," I said. "It's taking political correctness way too far." Our reporter planned to follow up the story for the next week's issue of the Cupertino Courier.
When I rolled into work the next Monday, however, the story was taking on a whole new dimension, one that is hardly funny and has given me a lot of pause about what a small bit of uninvestigated information and certain buzz words in today's world can do.
This story had gone international. We were receiving angry emails from all over the country, people furious that a principal would bar the Declaration of Independence from the fifth-grade curriculum because it mentioned God.
So, in effect, we stopped the presses last Monday. (That's the day we proof our papers for Wednesday's publication.) We hurriedly got what little information we could from the school district. We learned that, in fact, the principal and district were not barring teachers in the school from teaching the Declaration of Independence. So we knew there was more to the story, but we couldn't connect with the school or the teacher, Stephen Williams, who was bringing the lawsuit. We did find out that Williams' lawyer was supplied by a Christian advocacy group.
That was Monday; we published what we knew.
We also knew the school because earlier this year we'd done a story on their reenactment of the Revolutionary War. We recalled that they even sang "God Save the King" at the event.
On Wednesday as the emails kept rolling in here, I finally was able to talk to a teacher at the school who described what was happening there.
She said the school was being pounded by faxes, emails and telephone calls of the most obscene language she'd ever heard. The school staff was shocked and felt betrayed and embarrassed. She said that she was a Christian—Episcopalian—and had never been barred from using the Declaration of Independence in class. She said, in fact, that the entire document is printed in the textbook.
By then we had a copy of the court document filed by Williams' lawyers. Now we knew more. According to the documents, Williams is claiming that the principal discriminated against him because he is an "orthodox" Christian. Included in the material we now had, were copies of the handouts, including the first three paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, Williams used to supplement his lessons. The handouts focus heavily on prayer and religion in history.
So there might be more to the story than extreme political correctness. But the other side was getting no press, and of course, all issues have more than one side.
Even Williams is astounded at the hate mail coming into the school. According to Williams, he only expected some discomfort between himself and the principal, a trial and then the issue would be settled.
So what was this fury raining down on Stevens Creek Elementary School from around the country?
Here are some thoughts:
No matter what his or her political or religious persuasion is, to any American, the Declaration of Independence and other founding-father documents are akin to the sacred. Put out a message that a principal won't let a teacher use the Declaration of Independence in class just because it mentions the word God, and Americans will rise up in fury, most especially those Christians who already believe schools have banished God from schools in a misguided effort to be politically correct.
Can there be any question that those whose agenda is to break down the barriers between church and state had a hand in sensationalizing this story? The Alliance Defense Fund, the organization that is supplying Williams with legal resources, is an advocacy group that according to its website " ... provides resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the gospel through legal defense ..."
One only has to go to the home page of the Alliance Defense Fund to see its tactics. The headline there is "Declaration of Independence Banned from Classroom."
And therein lies the problem. We all jump up and scream before we even think. This headline must have been sent out when the lawsuit was being filed because, before the story hit Bay Area news, it was the subject of such national talk show hosts as Rush Limbaugh.
But what's most disheartening to me is the media has helped further this hate-filled reaction because it has failed to looked into the other side of the story. Certainly Williams has a right to challenge district policy, and more power to him. But the efforts of the Alliance Defense Fund to rile up people into what could be called a "virtual" lynch mob suggests that there's a bigger agenda. As it stands now, the principal, the school, the district, even California have been tried and convicted with no one hearing the other side of the story.
Believe me; I'm no longer laughing.
Here is a sampling of the emails we've received. They are tame compared to the threatening messages Stevens Creek School and the district have received.
Sandy Sims is the editor of The Courier. Contact her at 408.200.1055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
December 15, 2004 Cupertino, California Since 1947
Principal has always been fair, reasonable and kind Thank you, thank you for your in-depth reporting and fair analysis of this controversy. My children attended Stevens Creek School for six years. We always found the principal very fair, reasonable and compassionate. We fully believe that she is being unfairly vilified in the press and on the Internet in this controversy. The media is feeding this because it makes a good story, and people with no actual knowledge of the facts are using it to push their own agendas.
The only information available so far is from the complaint filed in court—which is only one person's version of what occurred and is, like all court documents, necessarily biased. As you wrote, "the principal, the school, the district, even California has been tried and convicted with no one hearing the other side of the story." This is wholly unfair to a principal and school that have always been exemplary.
G. Ebisu Cupertino
DeCinzo's cartoon is a perceptive interpretation
I want to commend DeCinzo for his humorous and perceptive interpretation of the issue of manipulating the teaching of history in the classroom in order to promote a personal, religious agenda.
Such exploitation not only makes a mockery of the concepts of separation of church and state promoted by our founding fathers, but also unwittingly ridicules the ideals of Christianity that promote love and tolerance.
How ironic that the letters to the editor supporting such blatant religious intervention into the classroom express hatred, intolerance and vitriolic attitudes towards our community. What a poor witness and example to either Christianity or any religion.
I am glad that the community is supporting the school involved and the district administration against the ugly attacks made by self-righteous individuals, the media frenzy and well-funded special interest foundations that would attempt to exploit children and insult a whole town in order to impose a form of religious McCarthyism.
To those who would suggest that we either capitulate or immigrate to another country, I want to emphasize that this is our country and that we don't plan on going anywhere and neither will we be threatened or coerced to accept a Taliban style of religion in our classrooms. God bless America.
Ann Shirkey Cupertino
Staff of Stevens Creek School support principal
We, the undersigned members of the Stevens Creek staff, would like to offer this letter as a heartfelt show of support for our principal, Patricia Vidmar. For the past 10 years, Patty has encouraged, cheered, inspired and even roused us into being the best we can be in our teaching and as individuals. This has been done in many forms and in many ways.
Mrs. Vidmar, as our instructional leader, models for the staff the best practices in shared leadership. A representative from each grade level sets the goals for the years, plans learning day activities and provides workshops on goal topics. This encourages expression of individual opinion in an environment of acceptance and respect.
Mrs. Vidmar's open door policy invited everyone—staff, community and students—to give input, seek solutions and sometimes just be heard. She is never too busy to listen and respond to our needs, whether personal or professional. She always has a positive word of praise or encouragement for adults as well as children.
Mrs. Vidmar continually inspires us to work together, to support each other and above all, to do the best possible job of educating the children of the Stevens Creek community.
Theresa Nguyen Michelle Weiss and 45 additional staff members signed this letter
Teacher should realize he works for parents
I find it incredibly funny when any teacher claims his/her First Amendment rights are being violated, as the Stevens Creek school teacher does. Does he not realize that he works for the school district, which in turn works for the parents of his students?
Face it, the only reason this defense fund is involved is because it can use this non-issue to raise people's anger, and raise money to "help fight those who hate religion." I'd bet there is a link on its website that accepts Visa.
I think we do need more separation between church and government. Anyone who thinks otherwise should simply look at the problems with the religion-based governments of the Middle East.
Matt Conens Cupertino
Children aware principal is getting the hate mail
After reading the opinion section of the Dec. 8 Cupertino Courier, I felt compelled to write. I was stunned to see the letters from outside our area responding to the one-sided reports regarding Stephen Williams and his civil rights. What I find the most surprising is Williams' total disregard for the civil rights of the children at Stevens Creek School and his classroom in particular.
My children are afraid to walk to school. There are police and administrators on campus full time. They are fully aware that their beloved principal is receiving threatening hate mail.
My family has been at Stevens Creek Elementary for the past 10 years, and I have a child starting kindergarten next year. My son is currently in Stevens Creek's fifth grade.
To imply that the Declaration of Independence is not being taught is not only wrong, it is the method of Williams' attorneys to garner sensational attention from the media.
Every step, from the filing of his lawsuit, days before Thanksgiving, to the methodical press releases and well-placed interviews have been deliberate and slanted in such a way to catch the attention of the press.
This case is not about Williams' right to teach the Declaration of Independence; it is about the rights of the children to receive their religious education from their own church and their parents. I hope Mr. Williams has a Plan B because he may find himself all alone once the Alliance Defense Fund finds a new poster boy.
Linda Orvick Cupertino
City Beat/Valley Beat Issue Number 80 - 12-16-04
A GRUBBY LITTLE WITCH HUNT
by Andrew Gumbel
The battle over revisionist Christian history in Cupertino bodes ill for the nation
If you haven’t spent the past couple of weeks tuned into right-wing talk radio and Fox News, you might not have heard of Stephen Williams. Out there in the land of Rush and Sean Hannity, though, he has already been enshrined as a folk hero of the triumphant new right, a saint and perhaps also a martyr.
Williams is a fifth grade teacher in Silicon Valley and practicing Christian who fell foul of his school principal because he was overeager to emphasize the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers in his history classes. So far, so banal. He wasn’t suspended or fired. The principal at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino simply became a little alarmed when Williams distributed a handout entitled “What Great Leaders Have Said About The Bible,” which quoted a handful of Republican presidents (all pro!) alongside Jesus himself. She became more alarmed still when he asked his class to read a chunk of St. Luke’s Gospel to help them understand the meaning of Easter. So, at the end of the last school year, she asked him to submit his lesson plans to her in advance to make sure his classes didn’t violate the separation of church and state.
When Williams edited down the Declaration of Independence to include only its references to a higher being, or when he reproduced chunks of George Washington’s prayer journal to the exclusion of the Father of the Nation’s more obviously political reflections, the principal drew the line and told him to take the discussion in a different direction.
There the affair might have ended had it not been for Williams’s friends in a Phoenix-based fundamentalist Christian outfit called the Alliance Defense Fund, who persuaded him that what was going on was a brazen attempt by Left Coast liberal heathens to airbrush God out of the public arena altogether. The ADF started spreading stories that he was the victim of an out-of-control principal who was as allergic to religious references as vampires are to garlic and rosewater. And they bankrolled a federal lawsuit against the school district, filed last month, in which Williams alleged that his First Amendment and other constitutional rights were violated.
“Declaration of Independence Banned From Classroom” read a hysterical headline on the ADF website on the day the suit was filed. Soon the line was being pounded like a drum all over the right-wing airwaves, and made it, unqualified, into the headline of a Reuters news wire dispatch. Principal Patricia Vidmar, listeners and viewers were told, couldn’t stomach the nation’s original founding document because of its mentions of Nature’s God, the Creator, and Divine Providence. “What has America become if these words no longer have the meaning for us that they have had for our parents and their parents before them?” huffed Sean Hannity on Fox News. “When these words of Thomas Jefferson fall on deaf ears, where are we?”
Hannity returned to the story again and again as though the very fate of the Republic depended on it. He even moved his show to Cupertino for one night last week and renamed it “Take Back America” to ram home the point. He continued to voice his indignation even after Williams, the star guest on the Cupertino broadcast, admitted to him that, er, actually, the story about the Declaration of Independence being banned wasn’t true. Hannity, of course, has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good rant, and the following night he was back at it. “I think this is a pivotal moment for this country,” he thundered.
Clearly, thousands of evangelical Christians agree, because they have been bombarding Stevens Creek Elementary with e-mails, faxes, and letters. One man told the school: “We hope you burn in hell.” Another, purporting to be a concerned local resident, wrote to the school board urging them to give Principal Vidmar a psychiatric evaluation. Another Christian-right footsoldier called a teacher at home at 1:30 in the morning and said: “I know who you are, where you live, and that you work for that godforsaken school.”
The point here is not whether Stephen Williams or Patricia Vidmar overstepped a professional boundary. The debate hasn’t gotten anywhere near sophisticated enough to address that question. The point is that the frenzy whipped up on Williams’s behalf portends an ugly battle whose implications stretch far beyond Cupertino. Having gained unprecedented access to the corridors of national power, the Christian right is now setting its sights on tearing down two centuries of secular tradition, starting with the very foundation of American society, its public school system.
This is no idle threat. The backers of the Alliance Defense Fund include James Dobson, a Bush family confidant and head of Focus on the Family, which believes gay marriage will “destroy the Earth” and has already set about eviscerating the once highly regarded public schools in Colorado Springs, where it is based. They also include Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, who wants to put “In God We Trust” posters in every public school, and James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, who agrees with John Ashcroft that America’s only King is Jesus. “The time has come,” Kennedy has said, “and it is long overdue, when Christians and conservatives and all men and women who believe in the birthright of freedom must rise up and reclaim America for Jesus Christ.”
All that puts the debate about the religiosity of the Founding Fathers in rather chilling perspective. It’s ludicrous to argue, as the evangelicals do, that because most of the Framers of the Constitution were practicing Christians, they never had any intention to create a separation of church and state. First off, the argument is historically bogus. The Framers knew they could never knit a Republic together if they imposed a single Protestant religion on the heterodox believers of the 13 former colonies. They also knew that European settlers had crossed the Atlantic precisely to be able to practice their individual religions without state interference. The whole doctrine of the separation of powers was based, in part, on historical memories of a Europe oppressed by the established church.
Secularism is also a tradition that has deepened over time. Even if someone now wants to point to some of the Founders and question their secularist credentials, so what? Most of the Founders were also deeply skeptical, if not outright hostile, to the notion of representative democracy. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts called it “the worst of all political evils.” But nobody is – yet – suggesting that voting is un-American.
Forget any pretense at real debate. The showdown in Cupertino is a grubby little witch-hunt in which purported defenders of the Constitution are doing everything they can to rip the constitutional fabric of the country and trump secular pluralism with fundamentalist theocracy. That tendency has always been part of the American political landscape, of course, going back to the evangelical revivals of the early 19th Century. The difference now is that the religious extremists have money, power, plentiful access to the broadcast airwaves, and a president who echoes many of their beliefs. We should all be deeply unnerved.
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