School district sued over textbooks laden with religious messages

Friday, August 27, 1999

An eighth-grader and her mother have sued a California public school district that bought Christian textbooks for its curriculum and openly acknowledges its mission is intertwined with Christian teachings.

On Aug. 24, a day after classes got under way at a rural K-8 school near Bakersfield, Calif., the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California challenged the district's openly religious mission in federal court. The ACLU, representing a student and her mother, argues that the school is endorsing Christianity in violation of the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment and the state Constitution.

The Belridge School District, founded in the early '90s, educates children through the eighth grade. Its mission statement declares that “education is effective and has purpose when we believe that God has given us the task to educate our children through love.” The statement includes a list of principles that are “actively incorporated” into the school's curriculum. These include “Moral and Character Development of Students and Staff,” and “To Honor God, Parents, Country and School.” According to the school district, its mission can “only be accomplished through a unified effort between families, school and God.”

Rita Elliot, 12, planned to attend eighth grade at Belridge this month, until her mother, Veronica Van Ry, became concerned about textbooks the school district said would be used in all grades for the 1999-2000 school year. The books, published by A Beka Book, a company that describes itself as “the largest Christian textbook publisher in the world,” are rife with biblical quotations and Christian dogma. Although Van Ry voiced concerns about the books to school officials, Superintendent John Wentland said at a public meeting on Aug. 20 that none of the book's religious messages would be deleted from the books. A lawyer representing the school district qualified that position after the lawsuit was filed.

One American history text in the series is titled “America Land I Love in Christian Perspective.”

According to its mission statement, A Beka Book is “unashamedly Christian and traditional” in its approach to educational publishing. “For example, we do not use the pseudo-scientific jargon of the secular educationists in our materials; we prefer to use language that can be easily understood by teachers, parent, and student,” the group's mission statement reads.

Though not concerned about the text's lack of scientific jargon, Rita and her mother were both alarmed by the book's repeated references to God and the Lord in every subject of the book. The textbook introduction to English states that “Language is learning how to use words effectively to express God's love to others.” A second-edition mathematics book defines the subject approach as “learning to see mathematics as part of the truth and order that God has built into reality,” and “studying one aspect of the order of the real world, and indirectly learning more about the God Who created the world I live in.”

The grammar and composition book to be used at Belridge is not only laced with Christian references, but its writing section also includes statements such as:

  • “Most Arabs are devout Moslems. This religion will not save them from sin.”
  • “Though they attained a degree of civilization, the American Indians had no knowledge of God and without this knowledge all other attainments are worthless.”
  • “Because they regard not the works of the Lord, He shall destroy them.”
  • “Thousands of people starve each day in India. Hindus refuse to eat cattle.”

Elliot and the ACLU have demanded that the school dump the Christian textbooks. They also want the school to cease its overall promotion of Christianity. A banner hanging prominently in the school cafeteria states: “This is the day that the Lord has made,”

Further, the district encourages its students to enter a competition called “In God We Trust In My America,” which allegedly “helps students to become sensitive to Religious influences in American history.” According to the competition guidelines, however, “all student presentations must give reference to God defined within the context of historical Judaic/Christian principals (sic).”

“The use by the Belridge School District of A Beka Book's Christian-oriented textbooks in all areas of the Belridge School curriculum has an impermissible religious purpose, and thus violates the United States and California Constitution,” the ACLU argues in its complaint. “By using those sectarian textbooks, the School District intends to send a message that it endorses a particular religious orthodoxy.”

The Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group that defends religious-liberty and parental rights, has agreed to defend the school district. However, Brad Dacus, president of the group, said that school officials would not use the A Beka Book textbooks until the litigation is wrapped up and proper edits to the book had been made.

“There is no reason why any student should be deprived from using the most proven and outstanding of academic materials in this country,” Dacus said. “There is nothing out there more proven than the A Beka materials for private schools throughout the country; and with appropriate editing the materials can be used in public schools.”

Dacus said the ACLU's lawsuit was “based on ignorance” and that the school has done nothing that amounts to an endorsement of Christianity.

Peter Eliasberg, an ACLU of Southern California attorney, said the case “is about a public school that inculcates students with its own prescribed version of what God is, who God chooses to listen to, and how one gets on God's good side.”

Moreover, the ACLU does not believe that the A Beka Book textbook can be edited to pass constitutional muster.

“I would love for someone to edit these textbooks to make them consistent with the establishment clause and preferably without using tax payer dollars,” Michael Small, the ACLU of Southern California's chief counsel, said. “I find that impossible, however.”