In Hillsboro, Mo., a small group of fundamentalist parents files suit against the town school board, accusing school officials of indoctrinating their children with an anti-God, atheistic philosophy known as "secular humanism."
In Church Hill, Tenn., a parents' group goes to court claiming that the entire reading list, from kindergarten through eighth-grade, promotes secular humanism by advocating witchcraft, sun-worship, euthanasia and one-world government. They sue to have their children assigned alternative reading.
And in a legal case with a strange twist, more than 600 parents and teachers file a lawsuit against the Mobile County, Ala., school commission, accusing the schools of teaching secular humanism and practicing unconstitutional censorship by failing to tell children about the role of organized religion in American history.
Across the country, in small towns and rural counties, in the Bible Belt stretching from the Deep South to the midwestern plains, fundamentalist Christian parents are joining forces to battle school systems in an ideological war against humanism that some among them have called "the battle for children's minds."
These parents, some conservatives say, are reacting against a perceived breakdown in America's moral fabric, which they see as a failure of the public education system. Many fundamentalists trace societal problems such as pornography, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy and youth suicide to the liberalization of America's schools, the breakdown of old-fashioned classroom discipline and a loss of religious faith symbolized by successive court rulings that ban school prayer.
In the classrooms, their anger is directed at textbooks that emphasize evolution over divine creation, at innovative teaching methods pioneered in the late 1960s and '70s, aring with some of his work. attorney to the parents in Church Hill, Tenn. CWA's participation prompted People for the American Way to get involved on the opposite side.
Added John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, who wrote the book "Parents' Rights": "It's an ideological battle to determine who's going to win the schools."
Many of these parents rely on a pocket-sized paperback called "Child Abuse in the Classroom," a compilation of alleged improper teachings collected by conservative educator Phyllis Schlafly. For advice on textbooks, they usually contact Texas' famed textbook critics Mel and Norma Gabler, whose often-critical "reviews" of standard school textbooks have been widely distributed through the network's mailing lists. The intellectual underpinning of the movement is provided by Christian educator Tim LaHaye and Whitehead, among others.
At the edges of this uprising against the education establishment are national groups like CWA, The National Council for Better Education (NCBE), the Rutherford Institute in Virginia, The American Coalition for Traditional Values, and TV evangalist Pat Robertson's Freedom Council Foundation. The leaders of these groups meet periodically to map strategy on issues they support, such as vouchers for private schools.
"The groups that are right here, we do all get together," said Sally D. Reed, a former worker for the National Conservative Political Action Committee who now heads the NCBE. "We get together about once a month" to coordinate constituent mailings and news releases, she said.
These national groups stress that they are not pulling the strings to control local parent uprisings. These, they say, are cases of individual parents banding together independently to wrest control of local schools from their ideological enemies -- the secular humanists -- in the National Education Association, the textbook industry, the nation's graduate schools of education, and in the lower reaches of the Education Department.
John Whitehead said these small town battles represent a loose national "awakening, a consciousness" similar to the liberal movement that swept the country in the 1960s without a central source.
"A lot of this is what you call fundamentalist Christian-action-type people," Whitehead said. "It's a consciousness. That's how it travels -- word of mouth. Especially in Christian circles you find people talking about it. Radio is the most powerful medium out there."
Central to the struggle is the question of what America's public schools should be teaching. Simply stated, the questions are: Should curriculum be heavily values-laden, emphasizing morals and ethics while fostering a belief in God? Or should a curriculum strive to stay neutral on issues of religious faith and individual ethics, teaching children to make their own decisions about what is right and wrong based on the circumstances?
This debate has been carried to the highest levels, with President Reagan and his education secretary, William J. Bennett, making the case that schools should transmit traditional and widely accepted American values of family, work, neighborhood and religion.
"Is there a neutral zone of values that we all hold in common that doesn't have to be justified?" asked Doug Alexander, a conservative education researcher in Washington.
"If there is such a zone," he said, "then our schools should be teaching it. The war -- or if 'war' is to strong, the struggle -- is over whether or not there is such a value arena which our schools represent. That is the great question occupying the minds of educators today. That is the great debate."
Parents have used a variety of techniques to challenge local school boards. Most often they cite the Hatch Amendment, a federal law making it unlawful for teachers to engage in psychological testing of children without parental consent. Such testing has been interpreted by fundamentalist parents to include almost anything they disring with some of his work. unusual court challenges on First Amendment grounds.
In Church Hill, the fundamentalist position in court papers is that humanism is a religion being unconstitutionally taught in public schools, in violation of the separation of church and state. That revolt was sparked by a Holt, Rinehart and Winston science textbook called "Riders on the Earth," a title taken from the passage describing man's first moon landing. It refers to humans as "riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know they are truly brothers."
The fundamentalist parents said that the passage and the general tone of the book advocated sun-worship, internationalism, and one-world government at the expense of nationalistic pride -- in other words, it promoted humanism.
In Mobile, Ala., the parents' legal claim is that the children's First Amendment rights are being violated because the schools are censoring information about America's religious history.
The case in Hillsboro, Mo., illustrates how the battle between Christianity and humanism played in one small town, and how the loose conservative network influenced it.
The Hillsboro case began in December 1984, when five mothers appeared before the local school board and charged that their children were being subjected to secular humanism, which they called a violation of the Hatch Amendment.
One parent, Kathy Els, said, "I knew there were some strange things going on because of what my kids were bringing home." One of those "things" was a "survival game" being taught in her 17-year-old daughter's sociology class, where the children were told that the world had been destroyed except for six people, and they had to choose which six could live from a list of 10, including a policeman, a rabbi, a doctor and a black militant.
"We called the Eagle Forum," Els said in a telephone interview, "because we had heard on the Christian radio that there was a law against this. They sent us some information on the Hatch Amendment and a copy of Mrs. Schlafly's book."
The month after the Hillsboro parents protested, Shirley Marvin, a resident in nearby Arnold, opened the first Jefferson County branch of Schlafly's Illinois-based Eagle Forum. "It was really a coincidence," said Marvin, former Missouri director of the Women for Reagan effort in 1984. "I've been a member of Eagle Forum for a while." Marvin then began assisting the Hillsboro parents.
In February, Schlafly mentioned the Hillsboro case on the "Donahue" show and accused the school board of ignoring the parents' rights.
The issue came to a head at a stormy meeting in March, in a sweltering room packed with more than 300 spectators. Above shouts from the parents group that "humanism is being taught!" the board voted not to pursue the charges any further and urged parents to talk to the teachers if they had a problem with the curriculum.
The five irate parents then formed a group called "Parents Who Care for Basic Skills" and filed suit in May in the Jefferson County Circuit Court.
In November, a judge dismissed the case when the parents refused to reveal their source of funding for the lawsuit, as the school board had demanded. The parents have indicated that they may refile their suit soon.
Whether the Hillsboro parent uprising was spontaneous or orchestrated depends on who one asks.
"That this is a right-wing conspiracy, well-financed and well-oiled, is a bunch of baloney," Els said. "We're just a group of parents. We didn't have a network helping us."
"It's my impression that what happened in Hillsboro was part of a nationwide movement on the part of right-wing fundamentalists," said Bob House, a Hillsboro resident who formed a group in support of the town school board. "Secular humanism became the buzzword. At the same time, Eagle Forum became very active in the county."
He added, "A parent in Hillsboro, Missouri -- which is very rural -- could not have fostered such an attack without a knowledge of what was going on in Washington."