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Americans United activists in Texas are battling a coalition of Religious Right groups that has formed to pore over potential social studies textbooks with the aim of forcing the state to reject those that don't promote right-wing views.
Textbook battles have been a perennial feature of public education in Texas. In recent years, ultra-conservative critics have forced a number of changes in science books, watering down or removing entirely references to global warming, for example.
This year, social studies textbooks are in the crosshairs. Led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing, pro-voucher organization, a number of Religious Right pressure groups have banded together to examine the books under consideration. They have already criticized several for allegedly slighting Christianity or promoting socialism.
Republicans dominate the Texas State Board of Education--10 out of its 15 members belong to the GOP, and the Religious Right is able to exert great pressure on the body. When pressuring the board does not work, Religious Right groups simply take their complaints directly to the textbook publishing companies. Texas purchases millions of dollars worth of textbooks every year, making the market too attractive for most publishers to pass up. Religious Right groups not only get a hearing from the publishers, their demands are often accepted.
Because Texas buys so many textbooks, the changes Religious Right activists make in books inevitably affect children in other parts of the country. Rather than produce separate editions, many textbook publishers simply market the same texts to other states.
In 1995, legislators in Texas sought to defuse the controversy by passing a law restricting the power of the State Board of Education to reject textbooks. The law states in part that books may be rejected only for containing factual errors. But the measure has failed to stop pressure from Religious Right groups, who now simply insist that passages not to their liking are equivalent to factual errors.
Most recently, Religious Right groups took aim at a history book titled Out of Many: A History of the American People, published by Prentice Hall. The groups attacked the book mainly for passages that discussed prostitution in the Old West, Margaret Sanger's early birth control crusade and the struggle for gay rights.
Out of Many is a highly regarded textbook that has won high praise. One reviewer, Henry E. Stamm of Dartmouth College wrote, "Students generally give grudging praise to the work; the special care taken with women, African Americans, and Native Americans seems especially effective. Students often report that they enjoyed the 'stories' that begin each chapter. In essence, many students get 'hooked' by the narrative, which is high acclaim indeed for a history survey text!"
Texas law mandates that textbooks emphasize democracy, patriotism and the free-enterprise system, language that the Religious Right also exploits to reject any text that uses a "warts and all" approach to history.
"I don't mean that we should sweep things under the rug, but that children should see the hope and the good things about America," Peggy Venable of the Texas Chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, one of the groups scrutinizing the textbooks, told The New York Times.
But critics of the Religious Right say censorship is exactly what the groups want--or, in other cases, a rewriting of history. Some Religious Right organizations have complained, for example, that the history textbooks fail to discuss the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, an assertion that mainstream historians say is at odds with the evidence.
Advocates of church-state separation are fighting back. In August, Charlotte Coffelt, a member of Americans United's Board of Trustees and Houston resident, delivered testimony before the State Board of Education, refuting charges by the right-wing coalition.
"As you know, some of our fellow citizens promote their belief that our nation's founders intended for the U.S.A. to be a 'Christian nation,'" Coffelt told the board. "Many of our nation's founders came to our shores to escape religious persecution within their native countries. But America has become the most religiously diverse nation in the world, with citizens professing at least 2,000 varieties of belief systems. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was created to protect religious diversity and tolerance among peoples."
Continued Coffelt, "I challenge you to bring forth a few of Texas' constitutional authorities who can provide a true scholar's interpretation of the First Amendment and how important it is that it be accurately represented in school-children's textbooks."