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Justices Won't Hear Attack on 'Godless' Schoolbooks

February 23, 1988|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to hear an attack on allegedly "godless" school textbooks, dealing another setback to religious fundamentalists who had hoped that the Reagan revolution would foster a return of religion to the schools.

Without a registered dissent, the justices said that they would not tamper with an appeals court ruling that the Hawkins County, Tenn., schools need not set up special reading sessions for children of fundamentalists.

Plaintiffs in the highly publicized case had complained that students were required to read stories such as "The Wizard of Oz," "Cinderella," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and others dealing with "occultism, secular humanism, evolution, disobedience to parents, pacifism and feminism."

"A dark cloud of religious oppression looms over America's schoolhouse today," Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, said after the court's action. "All children have lost their First Amendment right to attend school without having their religious beliefs attacked, ridiculed and undermined."

Spokesmen for People for the American Way, which helped fund the opposition to the fundamentalists' case, hailed the Supreme Court action as foiling an effort to hold public schools "accountable to a rigid standard of sectarian religious dogma."

The decision "affirms the historic role of the public schools as the place where students are exposed to a wide variety of ideas," said Art Kropp, president of the liberal organization.

A shift away from the teaching of evolution and secular values was one of three top priorities promoted by Christian fundamentalists after Reagan's election as President in 1980. The others were tax support for religiously oriented schools and a return of prayer to public schools.

But, in 1983, the high court ruled that donations to racially discriminatory religious academies could not be tax deductible, rejecting a Reagan Administration plea. And, since then, the court has rejected an Alabama law that required a daily moment of "voluntary prayer" in the schools and a Louisiana law requiring "equal treatment" in the teaching of evolution and creationism.

Teaching Conflicting Beliefs

Monday's case was based on a complaint by Hawkins County parents Vicki Frost and Bob Mozert that the public schools were undercutting their faith by ignoring the Bible and teaching about conflicting beliefs.

At first, the schools said that children could "opt out" of the regular reading programs and instead read stories that met with their parents' approval.

But the school board changed its mind and said that it would not create a separate curriculum for some children. In 1983, a group of seven fundamentalist families filed suit, listing more than 300 examples of school reading material that they considered "godless" or otherwise objectionable. The list included fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and stories by anthropologist Margaret Mead and science fiction by Isaac Asimov.

The case focused attention on the conflict inherent in the First Amendment, which forbids laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion." The parents charged that the standard textbooks violated their rights to the "free exercise of religion," but school authorities said that a special program suited to the religious views of one segment would be an "establishment of religion" in a public school.

Victory in State Court

After a trial in 1986, Tennessee state Judge Thomas G. Hull concluded that the books in question were not religious--or anti-religious--in tone but that the parents were genuinely offended by the message they got from them. Hull said that the children must be excused from the reading program, and he granted the families a total of $51,000 in damages--the approximate cost of alternative reading education.

But a three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals voided that ruling and concluded that the children were not "compelled" to accept any belief that contradicted their religious faith. Merely being exposed to a variety of stories did not infringe on their religious rights, Chief Judge Pierce Lively said.

The court said also that the parents had the option of "home-schooling" their children or sending them to private schools.

In appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, attorney Michael Farris urged the justices to weigh a crucial question in the case: "Should children be forced to read books which they find religiously offensive as a condition of remaining in the public schools?"

1943 Ruling Cited

He compared the families' objections to those made by Jehovah's Witnesses who in 1943 challenged a West Virginia law that required students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court struck down the law.

In this case, the high court issued a brief order saying that the ruling (Mozert vs. Hawkins County Public Schools, 87-1100) will stand.

Tennessee Atty. Gen. W. J. Michael Cody greeted the ruling with relief. "Any alternative disposition would have been the cause of chaos in the school system," he said.

However, Farris said it could lead to an exodus of born-again Christian children from the public school system.

In a separate case last year, fundamentalists lost a challenge to textbooks in Alabama. A state judge had rejected 44 textbooks in use in Alabama schools because they reflected "secular humanism," but a federal court overturned the decision and it was not appealed further.

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