Groups calling for Christian exodus from public schools continue to grab attention

Thursday, February 4, 1999

Christian conservatives are joining free-market thinkers in urging the end of the public school system.

Free-marketers despise “big government,” and Protestant conservatives deride public schools as bastions of secular humanism.

Last July, for example, Ray Moore, director of Exodus 2000, a group that urges Christians to flee en masse from public schools, presented a sweeping indictment of public education in a program at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. He said the nation's schools were a danger to the spiritual growth of younger Christians.

The call for religious balkanization is growing. Last week The Dallas Morning News reported that several other new nonprofit advocacy groups were calling public education harmful to Christians and urging parents to yank their impressionable children from them.

Exodus Project, based in St. Paul, Minn., and Citizens for Excellence in Education, in California, both argue that Christianity is being undermined by public education.

Bob Simonds, founder and director of Citizens for Excellence in Education, stated last year in a fund-raising letter that “the beautiful Christian children” must be saved “from any teaching that would destroy their faith in the living God we serve and worship.” Simonds, moreover, praised his group's work to “save America's public school children from atheism, homosexuality, the occult, drugs, children having children, abortion, brainwashing and crippling psychology.”

He urged parents to remove their children from public schools, saying “the price in human loss, social depravity and the spiritual slaughter of our young Christian children is no longer acceptable.”

Simonds' vitriolic stances toward non-Christians and public education are echoed by Moore and the St. Paul group.

The Christian groups have garnered support from dogmatic conservative televangelists, such as James Kennedy, a Florida broadcaster, and some academics. Richard Duncan, a religious conservative law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, said that “many people of faith view public schools as a serious burden on their ability to educate their own children from a perspective they believe to be true,” and that “if they have to kill the government schools to obtain justice for their children, so be it.”

Another group, formed five years ago, is the Separation of School and State Alliance, based in California. It has no official ties with organized religion, but was founded by Marshall Fritz, former president of a Christian school in Fresno and member of the Libertarian Party. This group bases its call for the end to public education on mistrust and disgust of government involvement with educating children.

The group's mission statement calls for “putting a stop to government compelled attendance, financing, curriculum, testing, credentialing, and accreditation.”

Although not tied to Moore's or Simonds' groups, Fritz said he “fully agreed” with Simonds' statements. “We are an alliance of everyone who for their own reasons wants to end government involvement in K-12.”

Fritz added that the goal of his group was to “obtain a more civil and wholesome society” and that the only way that could be done was to “end government control” of the public schools. Also, like Moore's group, Fritz believes that the nation's public schools have taught “the unimportance of God.”

Officials for a couple of Washington, D.C.-based civil rights groups decried what they viewed as a message of religious balkanization from the conservative groups.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director and vice president of People for the American Way, said that Christians are, of course, entitled to remove their children from the public schools.

“But I don't believe that these groups will become a widespread movement, because, in fact, public education benefits from diversity and kids from one religion benefit from another with different beliefs,” Mincberg said. “If all kids from different faiths were, over the long run, to leave public schools, then a balkanization would occur.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the groups led by Simonds and Moore represented the far-right fringe among conservatives.

“Of course schools are limited in what they can teach,” Boston said. “They can't preach, but that does not mean they are hostile toward religion. In the final analysis, this movement is led by a bunch of far-right leaders looking to stir up trouble and raise money. They get their information about public schools from lurid books published by TV preachers.”

Tom McCoy, a constitutional law scholar and professor at Vanderbilt University, said that the nation has yet to solve the problem of celebrating our deeply held differences without straining our common cultural fabric.

“The fact is there is a kernel of truth to each of the articulated positions from those groups,” McCoy said. “In their own way they call attention to the fact that the public school system is, unavoidably, a homogenizing cultural, political, social and moral force. Ironically, that is both the strength and weakness of the public school system. One can, however, easily understand individuals, like the Quakers, who object to the submersion of their individual viewpoints into a common cultural phenomenon like the public schools.

“Without that kind of common denominator cultural influence, we could not effectively exist with all the pluralistic elements in our society,” he said. “We have not yet figured out how much of a common culture should be imposed and how much we can continue to celebrate sometimes very serious cultural differences.”