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Charles County

School Board Considers Censoring Books, Handing Out Bibles, Teaching Creationism

Some Teachers Decry List of Ideas as Attempt to Inject Christian Values Into Curriculum

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page C04

To Margaret Young, vice chairman of the Charles County Board of Education, the required reading lists in her Southern Maryland school system are teeming with "profanity and pornography, fornication and adultery."

Take, for example, "Dust Tracks on a Road," an autobiography by acclaimed American author Zora Neale Hurston. Young said the book contained "disgusting" scenes of "inappropriate" sexual conduct.

(Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

"I think parents would be appalled if they really read the books their kids were reading that were so filled with profanity and pornography," she said. "I rely on the school system to provide good wholesome reading for my children."

So when the Board of Education recently compiled a list of goals and suggestions for improving the school system, Young said she supported the recommendation that calls for "removing anything [from reading lists] that provides a neutral or positive view of immorality or foul language."

But this proposal, and others that recommend distributing Bibles in schools, removing science books "biased towards evolution" and teaching sexual education classes focused exclusively on abstinence, has upset those who fear some board members are attempting to impose personal religious and moral beliefs on the public schools.

"They're basically trying to skew the curriculum, to teach their own conservative Christian values," said Meg MacDonald, a representative from the Charles County Education Association.

Board members say the list of more than 100 goals and suggestions, compiled without names attached, was simply a brainstorming exercise to generate ideas and encourage discussion. None of the proposals has been approved or even considered for a vote. But some see the document, distributed last month, as evidence of a growing conservatism on the board.

One of the more controversial proposals was to invite Gideons International to hand out Bibles to students. The document recommended being "very specific about where, when and how the Bibles are to be offered" but did not provide any of those details.

"What they're proposing is clearly unconstitutional. It is a violation of separation of church and state under the First Amendment," said Stacey Mink, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "This is something the ACLU is very concerned about."

The issue of Bible distribution has been litigated repeatedly. A 1993 U.S. Circuit Court case found it unconstitutional for Gideons to give Bibles to fifth-grade students in Indiana. In other states, schools have been allowed to designate a spot on their property where religious materials can be left and students can voluntarily browse them. In general, courts have taken a stronger stand against any religious material going to younger, more impressionable students, said Kevin McDowell, a general counsel with the Indiana Department of Education, who has studied the issue.

"The courts are pretty consistent," McDowell said. "Schools cannot look like they're promoting religion."

Mark Crawford, a Charles County school board member, said he wants to discuss the topic more before making a decision, but he said he believes Bibles could be beneficial for instilling morals and character.

"I think some people have been scared of the idea of separation of church and state to the point they . . . have become overly cautious," he said.

Crawford is part of the majority on the board that supports introducing the theory of creationism into the science curriculum. They argue that students need exposure to all theories about the origin of life so they can make educated decisions.

"I believe that if we are teaching evolution, we should have a section on creationism as well, and any other theory," board Chairman Kathy Levanduski said. "Let's motivate our kids to be creative thinkers."

John Krehbiel, a 10th-grade biology teacher at Westlake High School in Waldorf, said the recommendation to teach creationism in science is absurd.

"Supernatural beliefs simply don't belong in a science class," he said. "We deal with the scientific evidence available. If they bring this in to a science curriculum and want to talk about evidence, I'll rip it to shreds."

The list of moral and religious goals, which the board said it would begin discussing Oct. 12, has left some teachers "absolutely flabbergasted," said Leslie Schroeck, a guidance counselor at La Plata High School.

"Basically these people are telling you how you should be and, if you're not, you're a bad person," said Schroeck, who has two young daughters, one at Berry Elementary School in Waldorf. "If this is what they're going to do, I'll pull my kids out of school and teach them myself."

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