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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2004 / 4 Teves, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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Censoring the Declaration of Independence | Stephen Williams, an evangelical Christian, is a fifth-grade teacher at the Stevens Creek public school in Cupertino, Calif. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment guarantees his right to be a Christian, but his faith has placed him under suspicion by the school's principal, Patricia Vidmar, and resulted in him suing the school district, claiming he is being denied the right to distribute historical handouts that mention G-d and Christianity.

As a history teacher, Williams — as do other teachers in the school district — gives his students curriculum-related handouts to supplement the district's fifth-grade history textbook, "A New Nation: Adventures in Time and Place." Among the handouts are excerpts of original documents from the years during which our Constitution was being formed, as we became a free, independent nation. Among those documents are: Samuel Adams' "The Rights of the Colonists"; excerpts from George Washington's prayer journal and John Adams' diary; as well as excerpts from the Declaration of Independence — all documents that mention G-d. At a time when the fundamental principles of our history are superficially taught in our schools, Williams should be commended.

In having his students examine these documents, Williams explains the historical role of religion in our nation's founding and the reason for the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. That provision forbids the government from preferring one religion over any other, thereby preventing the state from interfering with the practice of religion or adherence to no religion at all.

However, at the Stevens Creek Elementary School, Stephen Williams is the only teacher required by the principal to submit to her, in advance, all his lesson plans and supplemental handouts for review so she can see if they contain any religious content. (According to Williams, only about 5 percent of all his handouts have references to G-d or to Christianity.)

Since May 19, 2004, Vidmar has rejected all of Williams' proposed lesson plans and original founding documents where G-d or Christianity are mentioned in them.

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Before this edict from the principal, Williams taught his students lessons in the origins of such religious holidays in America as Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan and the Chinese New Year. But in April, the principal ordered him not to teach a lesson about the origins of Easter because it is a Christian holiday. Williams has made it clear to the principal that he understands, and agrees, that he must not try to convert his students to Christian belief in the classroom. And, in the lawsuit that the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, has filed on his behalf in the federal court in San Jose, his attorneys emphasize that the California Education Code 51511 clearly states:

"Nothing in this code shall be construed to prevent, or exclude from the public schools, references to religion or references to the use of religious literature, dance, music, theatre and visual arts or other things having a religious significance when such references or uses do not constitute instruction in religious principles or aid to any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose and when such references or uses are incidental to or illustrative of matters properly included in the course of study."

According to the lawsuit, Principal Vidmar has said that she's worried that Williams "would try to proselytize his Christian faith to the students in his classroom." But she has offered no evidence that he has done that. And, apparently, only one parent has complained that he is proselytizing. It's bad enough that too many students across the country are deprived of solid, enduring lessons on why they are Americans. But when this principal and the Cupertino School District — defendants in the lawsuit — violate Williams and his students' constitutional rights, they are engaging in educational malpractice.

Where is the California Department of Education, whose standards for fifth-grade education are being conscientiously followed by Williams? At the very least, that state's education department should set up a remedial course in the Constitution for Vidmar and Cupertino school district officials.

And where is the American Civil Liberties Union? Williams' constitutional rights to equal protection of the laws and freedom of speech are being violated. Moreover, as for his students' rights, a school district official says: "no teacher has been stopped from passing out the Declaration of Independence." Well, no teacher except for Stephen Williams.

So his students have been specifically deprived of their First Amendment right to receive information central to their education as Americans. I am a sometime teacher, and my only religion is the Constitution of the United States. I congratulate Williams and the Alliance Defense Fund for their lesson plan not only for this school and its students, but for all schools in this nation.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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