The New York Times

December 5, 2004

God, American History and a Fifth-Grade Class

SAN FRANCISCO Steven J. Williams, an evangelical Christian who teaches fifth grade at a public school in Cupertino, Calif., is fast becoming a folk hero among conservative Christians.

In an affluent town in a region identified with the liberal elite, Mr. Williams has single-handedly turned the Declaration of Independence into a powerful tool for the Christian right in its battle against secularist teaching of colonial history, thrusting God and Christianity into the very same history lesson as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

When Mr. Williams, 38, gave his students at Stevens Creek Elementary School a proclamation from President Bush last May about national prayer day, a parent complained that it amounted to too much religion in the classroom. Mr. Williams said it was meant only as an example of a presidential proclamation.

But there had been other complaints, including one about a discussion Mr. Williams led regarding the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance. And in April, he says, his principal intervened to prevent him from teaching a lesson he had prepared about Easter.

More than a year ago, the principal, Patricia Vidmar, had advised Mr. Williams - a self-described "orthodox Christian" - that she worried he "would try to proselytize his Christian faith to the students in his classroom," according to a federal lawsuit filed two weeks ago on Mr. Williams's behalf by Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian group based in Arizona.

Some at his school feared that that was exactly what he was doing. So last May, Ms. Vidmar instructed him to submit his class handouts to be screened for inappropriate religious content, Mr. Williams says.

What has ensued has opened a window on the increasingly high-pitched struggle taking place in a number of schools across the country over how much God should be taught in American history, a battle that has raged for many years but is intensifying as conservative groups feel invigorated in pushing their viewpoint and as defenders of a more secular approach are put more on the defensive.

Barred from his classroom, Mr. Williams said, were handouts with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the "Right of the Colonists" by Samuel Adams, and the 1682 "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania" by William Penn. Also rejected were excerpts from George Washington's prayer journal and a handout titled, "Fact Sheet: Currency & Coins History of 'In God We Trust.' "

Ms. Vidmar nixed the handouts "because of their religious content," the lawsuit states. In it, Mr. Williams accuses the school district of excluding "the viewpoint that this nation has a Christian history" and of demonstrating "impermissible hostility towards religion." Mr. Williams says his materials had been singled out because of his Christianity.

School officials say none of the historical documents, or their underlying principles, have been banned from classrooms, only that Mr. Williams's use of them has been restricted. "No teacher has been stopped from passing out the Declaration of Independence," said Andy Mortensen, an assistant superintendent.

Inundated with mostly angry inquiries - more than 2,500 e-mails and 300 telephone calls - and denounced on conservative talk radio and cable shows across the country, district officials have declined to speak in detail about the lawsuit but have felt compelled to defend the district. "There is a misconception that we are a godless school district," said Jeremy Nishihara, a district spokesman. "We are trying to react to the backlash." Mr. Williams said that while he was grateful that his situation was receiving so much attention, he was appalled at the "totally despicable" hate mail the school has been receiving.

A statement by the district said school officials were required "to uphold the First Amendment which mandates the separation between church and state." As such, the principal had "the right and duty" to review Mr. Williams's instructional materials "to ensure compliance with this constitutional obligation."

Jordan Lorence, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the school principal's actions typified a prevailing mind-set among people who have "an allergic reaction" to the mention of God in schools.

"There seems to be a momentum to the logic and world view of the blue-state people, so to speak," Mr. Lorence said. "When it comes to these types of things, the cultural norm seems to be that you are allowed to be hypersensitive to any mention of God in a public setting, no matter what the context is. Anyone who disagrees is just an ignorant rube from a hayseed red state. I use hyperbole for effect, but that is the mind-set."

That Mr. Williams is being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which has been active in many conservative causes, including battles over same-sex marriage in San Francisco, is a sign of the advocacy many on the right hope the Cupertino case will inspire.

Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, said conservatives groups are hunting for cases that might "recover lost turf" in the schools, which Christians have seen as a troubled area ever since the Supreme Court ruling on prayer in school four decades ago.

Mr. Haynes, who helped draft national guidelines on religion and schools that were distributed by the Clinton administration, said one strategy has been to find ways of introducing religion into the curriculum through the backdoor. Primary historical documents are a favorite vehicle because many states, including California, place a great emphasis upon them in their curriculum standards. In 2000 in New Jersey, conservatives tried a legislative approach, pushing unsuccessfully for a bill that would have required teachers to conduct a daily recitation of a 55-word excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, including the reference to all men being "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." In a successful effort two years ago, Virginia required schools to post the national motto, "In God We Trust."

"In spite of the fact that I think we have worked out a lot of this over the last 10 or 15 years, there are still a good many people on both sides who want to battle it out and use the public schools as one of the places that they do battle it out," Mr. Haynes said. "Under this administration for the last few years, many of these evangelical groups I am in contact with don't feel they have to be so worried about finding common ground."

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