MOBILE, Ala. — In a decision expected to have nationwide impact, a federal judge Wednesday banned the use of several dozen textbooks in Alabama's public schools, holding that they unconstitutionally promoted "the religion of secular humanism."
U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand, ruling in a case that pitted the religious right against national civil libertarian lobbies, said the challenged textbooks violate First Amendment provisions mandating the separation of church and state.
More than 600 parents, teachers, ministers and others--backed by the National Legal Foundation, a group founded by television evangelist Pat Robertson--joined as plaintiffs in the case.
They argued that Alabama students are threatened with brainwashing by textbooks espousing secular humanism, which they define as an atheistic religion that makes man, not God, the center of the universe and advocates situational ethics and morals instead of absolute values.
If references to theistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism are excluded from public school texts, the plaintiffs contended, then so must references to secular humanism.
The defendants, who included the Alabama state board of education and 12 parents who entered the case as "intervenors," contended that the plaintiffs were using secular humanism as a catchall term for any textbook, classroom course or teaching method contrary to their fundamentalist religious beliefs.
In his 172-page decision, Hand said: "For purposes of the First Amendment, secular humanism is a religious belief system, entitled to the protections of, and subject to the prohibitions of, the religion clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Secular humanism is not a mere scientific methodology that may be promoted and advanced in the public schools."
He also said that the case represented neither an "attempt of narrow-minded or fanatical pro-religionists to force a public school system to teach only those opinions and facts they find digestible" nor an "attempt by anyone to censor materials deemed undesirable, improper or immoral."
"What this case is about is the allegedly improper promotion of certain religious beliefs, thus violating the constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of religion. . . . "
Hand's ruling listed only 36 books, but the plaintiffs had asked that 46 books be banned. Attorneys said there had been a clerical error and that a motion would be filed to correct it.
The challenged textbooks, many of them in common use across the country, included those used in teaching home economics, history and social studies. Among other things, the plaintiffs charged that passages in the books about one-parent families and divorce offended their beliefs about traditional families.
Hand cited a number of textbook passages as examples of "anti-theistic" teaching of value judgments.
From "Teen Guide," a home economics book: "Nothing was 'meant to be.' You are the designer of your life. If you want something, you can plan and work for it. Nothing is easy. But nothing is impossible, either. . . . "
From "Homemaking, Skills for Everyday Living": "The values you have were not given to you at birth. You have developed them on your own. All the experiences you have had throughout your life have contributed to your set of values. Your future experiences will also affect your values. . . . "
From "Today's Teen": "Too strict a conscience may make you afraid to try new ventures and meet new people. It may make you feel different and unpopular. None of these feelings belongs to a healthy personality. . . . "
At a news conference on the steps of the federal courthouse in Mobile after the decision was released, Robert Sheirling of Mobile, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said: "This is exactly what we were asking for. We're just overjoyed. . . . We were accused at the outset of having some hidden agenda in this matter, and I think Judge Hand . . . has stated very succinctly what this case is and what it is not."
Robert K. Skolrood, executive director of the National Legal Foundation, called Hand's ruling "one of the most significant decisions on religious freedom in the last 40 years."
"For the first time, on the merits, humanism has been declared to be a religion in America and it's going to make a lot of difference in America," he said.
But John H. Buchanan, a former Alabama congressman and Baptist minister who is chairman of People for the American Way, said: "Today's order is judicial book-burning. What is created here today by this ruling is nothing less than government censorship of the school curriculum, and a dangerous attempt to set the sectarian beliefs of one group as the measure of what may be taught."
State ACLU Director Mary Weidler said it was the first time to her knowledge that a federal judge "declared ideas unconstitutional."
"The decision confirms our worst fears of federal censorship over local public school matters," she said.