VISTA, Calif. — An overflow crowd of several hundred jammed a school auditorium Thursday night, with many accusing the city's newly elected school board of dividing the community along lines of race and religion.
More than three dozen speakers assailed or defended school board members for injecting into public debate the issue of creationism in the science curriculum and whether to hire, with district funds, four new lawyers known for their involvement in right-wing causes.
Parents and teachers accused the board of wanting the lawyers to defend against constitutional challenges to changes it seeks to impose. At the urging of member Sandee Carter, the board delayed a proposal to hire the attorneys.
Most of the speakers attacked the three of five board members who form the so-called "Christian majority" dedicated to sweeping change in the public schools in this community of 76,000 in north San Diego County.
Most of the meeting, which lasted more than three hours, involved creationism and included protests from the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.
Earlier in the day, the ACLU sent a harshly worded letter to the Vista board, vowing legal action if the members choose to forge ahead with the teaching of creationism or seek to impose a return to prayer in the city's schools.
"Any teaching of creationism as science is forbidden by the Constitution, just as any school prayer is forbidden," said the letter, signed by ACLU official Charles A. Bird.
"We can't allow this dishonest and political dogma to be taught with public funds," said John Ljubenkov as most in the crowd cheered, although there were scattered boos.
All 317 seats in the Vista Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts were occupied, with dozens of people standing and many more leaning against the windows outside, straining to hear.
Creationism was placed on the night's agenda only as a discussion item, but it brought 27 speakers, most of whom castigated the board for what one man called "the introduction of an irrelevant debate."
Newly elected board members Joyce Lee and John Tyndall, who, with President Deidre Holliday, form the "Christian majority," have said publicly they have no intention of imposing the teaching of creationism. But each has said they believe in it.
Carter attacked her new colleagues for the "hasty" introduction of an agenda item on whether to hire the four lawyers--known primarily for defending anti-abortionists--as "hired guns" prepared to represent the district against challenges from the ACLU and others.
"It breaks my heart to have this board gear up for costly legal battles," Carter said, "rather than concentrate on enhancing educational opportunities for all our children."
The crowd was often adversarial and at times hostile. Some yelled insults at Holliday and the two new members, and Holliday frequently told critical speakers, "You have only 10 more seconds."
With television cameras lining both sides of the cramped stage, parent Rick Beadle said, "All the hotshot attorneys you hire will do you no good. If we have to, we will fire you!"
Barbara West, who has three daughters in the public schools here, said the new board had created a climate of "us against them, teacher against teacher, parent against parent, Christian against non-Christian."
Speakers included a rabbi, a Greek Orthodox priest, an astronomer and parents representing both sides of the debate surrounding creationism, although most were critical of the new board and the direction they fear it will take.
"I'm confused," said parent Barbara McMullen. "Why are we here, and why is this room so crowded? Why are we not here for low test scores or overcrowded classrooms, but, rather, to talk about religion?"