Arizona Sued for Funding Religious Schools

     PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona has no business handing public money to charter schools that teach that “worship of God must be obeyed,” that “women who bear their 7th child will have a ‘higher place in heaven,” and use textbooks written by a John Bircher, a father and a Methodist pastor say in a lawsuit against the schools and the state.
     John Doe and the Rev. David Felton sued the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, and the Heritage Academy, on Wednesday in Phoenix Federal Court.
     “Public charter schools are not Sunday schools,” plaintiffs’ attorney Richard Katskee told Courthouse News. “They should be open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs.”
     As a public charter school Heritage is funded by taxpayer dollars, though Katskee did not know much money it gets from the state each year.
     The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools must review a charter school every five years. It has the authority to exercise continuous oversight, investigate complaints, and rescind charters, Katskee said.
     “People have been complaining about the pervasive religious instruction [at Heritage Academy] since around 2000, but the board has not done anything about it. We sent three rounds of letters to the school, but we got nothing. We had no other option but to sue,” he said.
     Religious indoctrination is rampant in Heritage’s mandatory American Government class, where students must memorize 28 religious principles that the school’s founder and principal, Earl Taylor Jr., says are required for a strong, just government, according to the complaint.
     Among other things, the principles state that America’s founders relied on “Natural Law,” defined in the textbook as “a code of ‘right reason’ from the Creator himself,’ that ‘cannot be altered’ or ‘repealed.'”
     At least two textbooks of required reading were written by W. Cleon Skousen, a Mormon theologian who “was closely associated with the John Birch Society and once accused President Eisenhower of being a Communist agent,” and who was eventually “shunned” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to the complaint.
     Skousen’s books describe Biblical stories as facts, as does Principal Taylor in his classrooms, the complaint states. Taylor teaches that “socialism violates God’s laws,” and Skousen’s text teaches that a laissez-faire free market economy was ordained by God, and that “welfare programs exist because the ‘have nots’ want the property that belongs to the ‘haves,’ Katskee said.
     Founded in 1995, Heritage Academy has campuses in Mesa, Gateway, and Laveen that serve around 1,100 students in grades 7-12. Its accreditation is through NCA CASI, a division of AdvancedED.
     Teachers in other classes also teach religious principles, for instance, denying evolution in science classes, and a literature teacher taught that enjoying rock music will automatically get students addicted to drugs and alcohol and that “women who bear their 7th child will have a ‘higher place in heaven,” the complaint states.
     Such instruction would be fine at a private school or church, but not in a public charter school, Katskee said.
     “Publicly funded schools should teach history in history class, science in science class, and leave religious instruction to parents and religious institutions,” he said. “When public schools like Heritage Academy teach religion, they are displacing the choices of parents, pushing a religious agenda, and making all Arizona taxpayers pay for it.”
     Heritage did not respond to emailed requests for comment sent Thursday afternoon.
     The 40-page complaint contains copious quotes from Skousen’s history textbook, “A Miracle That Changed the World: The 5,000-Year Leap.”
     For instance: “Providing equality for the blacks has never been approached with any degree of consensus. Some felt that with education and job opportunities the blacks could leap the culture gap just as other minorities had done. Others felt they should be made the beneficiaries of substantial government gratuities. Experience soon demonstrated, however, that government gratuities are as corrupting and debilitating to blacks as they are to the Indians.”
     And that in the 1960s the Black Panther Party sought “to destroy the whole economic and social structure of the United States so that blacks could enjoy equal rights under an American Communist regime.”
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that giving public money to the Heritage schools violates the First Amendment, and an injunction prohibiting the state from giving tax money to the chain until it complies with the law, and enjoining Heritage schools from spending taxpayer money on religious materials for the classroom.
     Katskee is legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in Washington, D.C.

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