Texas Curriculum Review Sparks Debate About Religion

Texas curriculum review could alter how history is taught, giving a nod to God.

July 24, 2009, 1:58 PM

July 29, 2009 — -- The debate about whether to teach religious-based social studies in Texas public schools has dominated a broader discussion about the schools' curriculum, which is undergoing a review by state officials hoping to improve the nation's second-largest school system.

The outcome could possibly influence the textbooks used by students in other parts of the country where there appears to be little or no lobbying for such religious-based material.

Of the six experts appointed in the spring by the 15-member Texas Board of Education to review the state's K-12 curriculum, three have said they would like to see more attention paid to the religious aspects of American history.

"The foremost problem that I see is that there is not nearly enough emphasis or credit given to the biblical motivations of America's settlers and founders," Evangelical minister Peter Marshall, the president of the Massachusetts-based Peter Marshall Ministries and one of the experts on the panel, told ABCNews.com.

"Our children need to know the truth about how our country got started," Marshall said.

"You never read about how the founding fathers were nearly all Christian believers and that it is their biblical world view that shaped the way they thought and achieved what they did," he said.

While the reviews written by Marshall and the other experts aren't guaranteed to be adopted, the final decision -- after social studies teachers across the state make changes and additional recommendations to the curriculum -- rests in the hands of a board whose majority is conservative.

David Barton, president of the Texas-based Christian heritage advocacy group WallBuilders, is another expert on the panel who would like to see changes made to the school curriculum.

What's U.S. History Without Religion

"I think there should be more of an emphasis on history in the social studies curriculum," Barton said. "If there is an emphasis on history, there will be a demonstration of religion."

In his written review of the curriculum, for example, Barton argues that in order for fifth-grade students to fully understand how the American government was formed, they must also understand that it was rooted in religion.

"Students must also understand the framers' very explicit (and very frequent) definition of inalienable rights as being those rights given by God," Barton wrote.

Barton told ABCNews.com that he believes Texas' public school curriculum should "reflect the fact that the U.S. Constitution was written with God in mind."

But Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, an organization he says is dedicated to countering the conservative religious right in the state, said that what Barton and Marshall are proposing is a direct violation of the separation of church and state.

"This is an attempt to politicize the curriculum and promote an agenda over the education of nearly 5 million Texas kids," Quinn said.

Asked about the criticism that he is pushing a religious agenda on a public school system, Barton said he doesn't know how "it's an agenda, it's just a part of history that certainly should be presented."

Marshall said, "If you're going to properly teach American history, you need to teach the Christian world view motivation of the people who made the history."

Quinn said a similar dichotomy formed last year when the Texas Board of Education reviewed the science curriculum. A different group of conservatives was largely unsuccessful in getting creationism discussed in textbooks, he said.

While the board voted against including guidelines that teach about creationism, loopholes remain that give teachers some leeway when it comes to teaching about anti-evolution theories.

Expect a Drawn-Out Curriculum Battle

"What these people are trying to do is see if there is a broad base opposing their efforts [like there was during the science review], as they look at the social studies curriculum," Quinn said.

"We anticipate there will be a full-court press by conservatives and a long, drawn-out needless battle that distracts the Board from what they really should be doing, which is to ensure Texas kids get the education they need to have a good future."

Lybeth Hodges, a history professor at the Texas Woman's University in Houston and another member of the expert panel, said her recommendations vary significantly from those of her conservative counterparts.

"I go to church every Sunday and I still don't want religion being taught to my children in a classroom by someone else," Hodges said, "and that's what it seems to be they are suggesting."

Hodges says that she trusts the teachers who will review the recommendations to oppose teaching more religious-based material and does not expect the suggestions by Marshall, Barton and the third conservative on the panel, Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington, D.C., to result in sweeping curriculum changes.

Dreisbach, who did not respond to messages left by ABCNews.com, suggested in his own review that the Bible should be included in U.S. government classes as one of the "influential sources."

But, despite the criticisms of the curriculum -- even Texas State Sen. Letitia van De Putte, who sits on the Senate's education committee, told the Dallas Morning News that she was growing tired of the board's "divisiveness" -- the committee's chair Gail Lowe hopes the curriculum will be changed to reflect the wishes of the all of the experts.

"I don't expect to pick recommendations from just a few of the experts," Lowe said. "I would expect something from all six is worthwhile."

Lowe, a conservative Republican who was appointed by Rep. Gov. Rick Perry, added that she thinks organizations like Quinn's Texas Freedom Network are trying to "nullify the influence of conservatives on the state Board of Education."

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University, said that it isn't just local Texans who should be aware of the debate about curriculum in the Lone Star State.

The sheer size of states like Texas and California, in terms of school children, means that changes in one of the states' curriculum could affect the rest of the country, Prothero said.

"The main textbook publishers have to be attentive to these states' standards because if they produce textbooks that don't meet the guidelines, they won't be issued," Prothero said. "So the states with the largest number of textbook buyers tend to have the most clout.

"So what you have here is a state that matters and is very conservative and very Christian and its voice gets to be heard."

Even so, Prothero said that it's unlikely any publisher will go as far as some of the religious conservatives in Texas hope, simply because they know that the textbooks will not sell widely if they are too faith-based.

"There's a threshold for some kind of plausibility for the textbook publishers," he said.