While the Supreme Court is the most high-profile venue for deliberations on religion and government, conflicts in the states also can be significant.
In Texas, for example, the Board of Education is revising the statewide K-12 social studies curriculum amid debates among board members and outside reviewers, including several prominent religious conservatives, over how big a role religion should play in the teaching of history.
The action follows the board's adoption last March of new science-curriculum standards that validated the teaching of evolution but opened the way for teachers to critically assess aspects of evolutionary theory.
Curriculum decisions in Texas are significant because of the influence the state — the nation's biggest textbook market — has on teaching materials elsewhere. Publishers often use Texas standards, revised every decade, to shape textbooks they sell nationwide.
For the social studies curriculum, moderate or liberal members of the 15-member Texas education board appointed three so-called “expert reviewers” to make individual recommendations on the proposed curriculum, and three such reviewers were named by social conservatives on the board.
Reviewers named by moderate or liberal board members are professors of history or education at universities in Texas, including former state historian Jesus F. de la Teja, chairman of the Texas State University history department.
Conservative curriculum reviewer David Barton is founder of WallBuilders. (TIME/Lee Blankenship Emmert)
Conservative reviewers include David Barton, former vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party and founder of WallBuilders, a Texas group whose stated goals include “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” Another is Massachusetts-based Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall, who describes his ministry as “dedicated to helping to restore America to its Bible-based foundations.”
Groups of teachers and academics finished drafts of the social studies standards in November, and a public hearing on the drafts was held on Jan. 13, 2010. Some, but not all, of the reviewers' suggestions were adopted in the drafts, though the board has final say over the curriculum content, a board spokeswoman said. The board is to take a first vote on the standards after the public hearing. New textbooks are scheduled to be adopted in Texas in 2012.
At least three conservatives on the education board have pushed for more treatment of religion in government and history classes. For example, former Chairman Don McLeroy has sought a new standard “that describes the Judeo-Christian Bible influence on the founding documents.” And Chairwoman Gail Lowe, along with board member Barbara Cargill, want U.S. history classes to cover the Great Awakening, a time of religious fervor in colonial America that some conservatives contend helped spur the colonies to seek independence.
In an early recommendation advocating coverage of the Great Awakening, Marshall, the Presbyterian minister and curriculum reviewer, wrote that “the leveling effect of the Gospel preaching … created a revulsion against the superior attitudes of British aristocracy and a revolt against British tyranny.”
“You can't properly tell American history unless you teach the biblical motivations of the people who discovered the country, like Christopher Columbus; the people that settled it, like the Pilgrims and Puritans; the people who formed government, like the Founding Fathers,” Marshall said. “My point in all of this is that children of this nation need to be taught the truth about the biblical worldview. The influence of the Bible and the Christian faith is absolutely gigantic in American history.”
But critics lambasted the curriculum-review process. The Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as “a mainstream voice to counter the Religious Right,” accused the board of education of including on the curriculum-review panel “absurdly unqualified ideologues who are hostile to public education and argue that laws and public policies should be based on their narrow interpretations of the Bible.”
John Fea, an associate professor of American history at Messiah College, also expressed concern. “Some of these Christian-right people have political power. As long as they use the past to promote their political agendas — and to me to not be very good historians in the process — this kind of stuff is going to find its way into textbooks, and it's going to be an ongoing debate. I worry about historians just maybe getting too tired and just giving in.”
— Thomas J. Billitteri