Georgia attorney general approves ‘respect for creator’ curriculum

Monday, January 22, 2001

Georgia teachers promoting “respect for the creator” as part of the
state’s character education program don’t violate of the First Amendment by
posting fliers bearing “In God We Trust,” the state attorney general said in a
recent opinion.

But Attorney General Thurbert Baker warned that teachers could cross
the constitutional line of separation of church and state if they attempt to
teach much more than the national motto.

“It is possible that the teaching of the character curriculum and
national motto in a particular classroom may be implemented in such a manner
that it generates a successful ‘as applied’ challenge,” Baker’s staff wrote in
the opinion. “However, the statutes themselves are not facially violative of
the establishment clause.”

The Georgia General Assembly developed a list of 27 desirable
character traits to teach in the state’s public schools during its 1997
session. During the 1999 session, the lawmakers passed a law that mandated
their teaching.

State education officials sought Baker’s opinion after People for the
American Way, a national civil-liberties group, warned that it might sue
several Georgia school districts for the way they implemented the character
education law, particularly the trait of “respect for the creator.”

School officials in Lumpkin County, for example, planned to hang
posters displaying the words “In God We Trust.” But the county’s school board
postponed such plans until after the release of Baker’s opinion.

The opinion, released on Dec. 28, cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s
three-part test in the 1971 case Lemon v.
by which courts must consider governmental conduct
under the religious clauses of the First Amendment.

The attorney general’s staff determined that neither state lawmakers
nor education officials intended to advance religion. The national motto, the
opinion says, has been so ingrained into the national consciousness that it
hardly registers as a religious phrase.

“Although inclusion of the trait ‘respect for the creator’ in the
curriculum does not have the historic acceptance accorded to the national
motto, it appears not to have a religious effect,” Baker’s staff also wrote.
“It does not endorse any particular theory of creation, nor does it disparage
those who do not hold a belief in creation.”

Paul Weimer, director of the Character Education Center based in
Atlanta, said the opinion noted that the Declaration of Independence makes
several references to a “creator.” And he said the state character education
law attempts to tackle the trait from that standpoint.

“What I see in the definition is an effort to define it in a way that
is fundamental to the theme of citizenship,” Weimer said in a telephone
interview. “Our Founding Fathers saw that certain inalienable rights came from
a ‘creator,’ for example.”

State education officials said they were happy with the attorney
general’s finding that the law, on its face, doesn’t endorse religion.

“(The opinion) doesn’t give anything more than that,” said Amanda
Seals, spokeswoman for state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko. “But then,
we didn’t ask for anything more than that.”

State education officials had hoped to come up with an inoffensive way
to teach “respect for the creator.” Seals said the Lumpkin County poster might
be the answer. She described the poster as “simple” with only the U.S. motto
and an American flag pictured.

“There was no additional language,” she said. “It doesn’t say anything
about taking kids to church or which creator, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or

Seals noted, as did the attorney general’s opinion, that a school or
teacher might cross the constitutional line depending on how they teach that

“It’s a fine line, this separation of church and state,” Seals said.
“If I was a schoolteacher, I would stick with what is in the attorney general’s

People for the American Way did not return calls for comment.