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SnakebyteXX
12-08-2004, 07:07 AM
Cupertino teacher sues to tell role of Christianity

Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 8, 2004
Steven Williams wants to teach his fifth-graders at a Cupertino public school all about Christianity's role in America's founding -- an effort that has opened a blue state-red state divide smack in the middle of the blue Bay Area.

Williams, a self-described "orthodox Christian," ran afoul of school administrators -- and several parents of his students at Stevens Creek Elementary School -- when he backed up his contention that religion was central to the Founding Fathers by passing out historical documents to supplement the district-approved curriculum.

Williams complained that state-approved textbooks contain scant mention of how much Christianity meant to early America. So he handed out William Penn's Frame of Government of Pennsylvania, in which Penn wrote, "Government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end."

Williams also passed out a list of religious clauses in state constitutions such as Delaware's -- which in 1776 required officeholders to "profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son."

Then there was George Washington's prayer journal. And as an example of a modern-day presidential proclamation, Williams distributed President Bush's statement on National Prayer Day 2004, in which he said, "Prayer is an opportunity to praise God for His mighty works."

Some parents said Williams crossed the line into evangelizing, and they complained.

"My daughter came home one day and said, 'Mr. Williams talks about Jesus 100 times a day,' " said Mike Zimmers, whose daughter was Williams' student last year and began complaining on the second day of school. "She's adored every teacher she had until then."

In May, Williams said, school Principal Patricia Vidmar began reviewing all his lesson plans and supplemental handouts in advance -- something he said doesn't happen to other teachers.

Last month, Williams filed suit in federal court in Oakland claiming that administrators were "systematically rejecting" any reference to God or Christianity in his handouts. Williams said his speech and academic freedom had been restricted "because of its religious content and viewpoint."

The debate over Williams' methods has electrified the evangelical and conservative network that helped return Bush to the White House last month.

One result: The normally placid school district, in a town where Bush got only 33 percent of the vote Nov. 2, has been bombarded by 3,000 e-mails and 350 phone calls. At least one police officer has been patrolling Stevens Creek School in recent days.

With many critics saying they heard that the school district is "banning the Declaration of Independence," and a few choice e-mails suggesting that "all of you in the school district can burn in hell," Cupertino's spokesman, Jeffrey Nishihara, somewhat exasperated, said, "The district has not stopped teaching about the Declaration of Independence."

The district denied all the claims in Williams' suit, and said it looks forward to explaining its side in court. Williams, who has taught in the district for eight years, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Some parents, the district's defenders, and civil liberties groups say the suit is an attempt by the Christian right to remake the nation's history. Although parents say Williams "is a nice guy," they say he's created an intimidating atmosphere for students who may be too young to contradict their teacher.

"This is the same thing that people have been trying to do for 200 years. The only difference now is that they're well funded, media savvy and litigious, " said Ivory Madison, who has done legal analysis for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It's a shame that our tax dollars have to be used for a school district to defend the Constitution."

The fiery issue will be fanned again tonight. Williams is scheduled to appear on the Fox News cable show "Hannity and Colmes" when the show films at De Anza College.

Supporters hope his case will rekindle a national debate that has long simmered in conservative circles: When is it appropriate to mention God in the classroom?

"What next? Perhaps some school official will try and rule that the Constitution is unconstitutional," the conservative National Lawyers Association said in its condemnation of "this rogue school principal."

The 2,700-member Missouri-based organization, which dubs itself "an alternative to the American Bar Association" and has supported the Boy Scouts in discrimination cases brought against the youth group, will probably file a brief on behalf of Williams, said CEO Mario Mandina.

"We heard from a number of our members who said, 'This is the last straw, ' " Mandina said.

Williams is being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, the legal organization that has filed litigation opposing same-sex marriage in several states, including California.

Conservatives lump Williams' case with others they feel aim to strip religious references, specifically Christian ones, from the culture. They put it in the same category as the effort to take the words "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It's a real infringement on traditional American culture," said KSFO-AM talk show host Barbara Simpson.

Ralph Otte's Los Gatos American Legion Post passed a resolution Monday night in support of Williams. The issue struck a nerve with members, who wear "For God and Country" on their caps.

"People were saying, 'For Pete's sake, don't let them get away with it,' " said Otte, an 82-year-old World War II veteran and longtime teacher. "Guys are ready to put on their caps and show up wherever they're needed."

But critics say Williams is taking religion out of context.

One of his handouts is titled, "What Great Leaders Have Said About the Bible." It quotes nine U.S. presidents singing the praises of the Bible, followed by a quote from Jesus Christ.

"It's just out of context," said Madison. "You're putting these presidents in the same context as Jesus."

Some parents at Stevens Creek School say conservative media outlets have twisted the story to make the district look silly. Plus, they feel that Williams has crossed a line -- one that fifth-graders may be too naive to know has been breached.

"This is not about teaching history, this is about indoctrination," said Armineh Noravian, whose child was formerly in one of Williams' classes.

In a school district where 45 languages are spoken, Noravian asked, "what would happen if someone whose religion is not a majority religion would be doing this? It isn't OK (for a teacher) to make a kid feel like he isn't like you."

Dorothy Pickler informally requested that her fifth-grade child not have Williams as a teacher this year.

"Because what he's doing isn't teaching history," she said. "If you were teaching at a church school, that would be great. But he isn't."


Link (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/12/08/MNGPBA8DPL1.DTL)