School Board Elections: Countering the Fundamentalists

by Frank Prahl

Within the past decade, Texas Governor. Mark White, with the help of Ross Perot, replaced a fundamentalist dominated state school board with one dominated by educators. Their first action was to start putting evolution back into textbooks and discour- raging creationism. We thought we had won the war -- or was it just a battle?

With the Religious Right dominating the White House and the GOP for the past twelve years and no accountability for church tax-free revenues, organized religion has been able to turn the media, and much public opinion, to their ideology. Creationism has again been steadily regaining acceptance in our schools partly because of our own apathy.

During our last school board election, a "Christian Values" slate of candidates was running. Among their pledges was one to put creationism back in science classes as a competing theory. I couldn't just sit by and let them win because of voter apathy, their greatest ally.

The first thing I did was to write the following letter to the local newspaper:

Is the 'Christian Values' slate of Kerry Graham, Larry Maxwell and Robert Andrews running for positions on a public school board or Sunday school? The positions being taken by this school board slate should frighten all who do not support their extremist religious views. This slate has the public endorsement of Harris County GOP Executive Committee leader Dr. Steven Hotze, who is on record as wanting to rebuild American government and society into a system strictly based on biblical law (Houston Post, 12/27/92, A1, 'GOP's Hotze wants biblical law as basis for government').

To frighten you even more is the knowledge that this slate is getting direction and support from such national organiza- tions as Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, Phillis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Don Wildmon's American Family Association, Terry Randall's Operation Rescue, Tim LaHaye's Creation Science Research Institute and the religious right Citizens for Excellence in Education, to name a few, and you still think this a local election? These organizations have combined their efforts nationally to elect their people to school boards and other minor offices throughout the country to take advantage of voter apathy. Traditionally, school board elections have very low voter turnout. Fundamentalist churches are much better at turning out their people to vote for their agenda than are general candidates and therefore win more often than they lose. We must not allow PISD to fall victim to this national effort.

To make matters worse, their religious agenda would bring a number of lawsuits the district can ill afford. Even the present, conservative U.S. Supreme Court still upholds the three-part Lemon test and the agenda of this slate would violate all three tests! The move to teach creationism as science has been struck down by the courts time after time, mostly recently in Louisiana and Arkansas. Orchestrated prayer in schools have received the same fate, even more recently.

This 'Christian Values' slate will only mean trouble for PISD should they be elected. With all the other good candidates running, we should be able to elect a board more interested in education than religion. We cannot afford to turn the school board over to this fringe group. Please vote.

Why did I write such a letter? First, to emphasize the difference between public and parochial schools; Second, to raise the awareness of the ultimate goals of these fringe candidates; third, to show how well organized and financed the movement, by these religion-backed groups, really is; fourth, exposing the ultimate cost to the schools if these candidates win and fifth, to show that even school board elections are important. I'm not sure how effective the letter was, but 90% of the letters-to-the- editor following publication of mine were favorable and the entire slate lost by a two-to-one margin in a record voter turnout.

I also attended three of the four forums attended by these candidates. In addition to asking a question about their religious agenda, I gave considerable literature to their opponents to help them argue their points. Several were very grateful and admitted they knew little of the "Christian Values" slate's ultimate agenda or backing.

Explaining the real meaning of some terms these candidates used helped defuse the issue. "Parental involvement", a term much touted by them, means that each parent should have the right to review a book before it is used to teach their own child, lest it suggest something not in agreement with their religious dogma. Also, the courts have declared that the term "creationist" implied a creator, and was thus a religious concept. To get around that, Creationist lawyer Wendell Bird invented the euphemism "abrupt appearance theory" and another group, associated with the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics has come up with "intelligent design theory." The arguments haven't changed, only the name.

What can we do, either collectively or individually, to slow or reverse this trend? First, you can write lots of letters to editors of all papers. Don't forget the small local papers. They are read and very easy to get published in. They also accept longer letters. The shorter the letter, though, the better chance you have of getting your letter published in the larger papers.

Creationism is just the tip of the iceberg in the religious right agenda. World population control, censorship, women's rights, abortion, gay rights, are all strongly opposed by this group. Don't forget to remind others of this fact. Make it an acceptable topic in any casual conversation. As I said in two of my published letters, "These issues will not even begin to get solved until is becomes as popular to criticize religion and the clergy as we now criticize government and politicians."

If you have communications with science teachers. encourage them to speak up for evolution and ignore creationism in private conversations. If they are doing it backwards, make it known to board officials and the public at large (letters again).

Many scientists are intimidated by the probability of offending someone's religious beliefs and do not speak out against pseudoscience. Intimidation is the greatest tool organized religion has to impede scientific investigation and discovery. The pseudoscience of creationism is finally being taken out of many schools texts, due mostly to the many scientists and teachers who did speak out. Now let's hear from the historians, geologists, philosophers, etc. who find old theories and accounts false in light of new discoveries. It's time we stop avoiding controversy by accommodating the lowest common denominator because we "might offend someone's religious beliefs."

To make sportsmanship a rule, in its battle against science, religion would have to become science. Enter Scientific Creationism. This argument is based on "fairness", but science doesn't work on fairness; it works on merit, a fact that needs to be argued in everyday conversations.

Local access cable is a wild card in the media and "scientific creationists" use it. Local access cable provides virtually unedited time to anyone who shows up with a tape, and reports indicate that "scientific creationists" use it as much as they can."

Another area is to attack their money supply. Churches were given a special tax exemption, a subsidy, to keep them out of the political area. Numerous church groups, such as the Christian Coalition, are demonstrating that they have no intention of staying out of politics. They are increasingly using that subsidy to finance lobbying activities and elections for their political agenda. Isn't it time to talk openly about ending these subsidies to those groups involved in or financially supporting political activities?

Only by exposing the driving forces behind the efforts of implementing the religious right agenda can we motivate people to talk about causes of such problems. In short, we must start our own "whisper campaign" to enlighten the general public on the religious right agenda, particularly as it affects our schools and the next generation. I have always heard that it is not proper to talk about religion and politics in casual conversation. I'm sure that notion was planted by organized religion so they would not be found out!

One must remember that religion is not a short term phenomena; it has long term goals, often several generations ahead. The only way a democratic society can cope with such long term efforts, is through long term education and fighting censorship at all levels. I helped win this battle, but they will be back again for the next election. So will I.

This is the condensed text of a talk given to the Houston Association for Scientific Thinking (HAST) on 2-19-93. Its author is a field developer for the American Humanist Association and is coordinator of the AHA's Mid-South region.

© Copyright 1993 by Frank Prahl

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