Suburban school becomes flashpoint for religion in the classroom

For years, Stevens Creek Elementary School enjoyed a solid reputation as one of California’s top-performing schools.

But for the past two months, the upper middle-class school in California’s Silicon Valley has found itself at the center of the national debate over the appropriateness of Christianity in the classroom.

Stevens Creek has received hundreds of angry phone calls and more than 3,000 e-mails — some vulgar, others threatening — since Nov. 22, when one of its teachers, Stephen Williams, filed a federal lawsuit against the school. The fifth-grade teacher alleges his civil rights were violated when school principal Patricia Vidmar ordered him to stop distributing documents to his students “because of their religious content.”

Among the banned documents, the suit says, were religious excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, various state constitutions and writings by George Washington, John Adams and William Penn.

Vidmar also banned a document Williams created called “What Great Leaders Have Said About The Bible.” It quotes Jesus Christ and nine U.S. presidents. According to the handout, John Adams said, “The Bible is the best book in the world.”

In his lawsuit, Williams, 39, said he merely wanted to use historical documents to explain the role of religion among the nation’s founding fathers. But he said he was singled out because the principal knew he was a self-professed Christian.

Williams, who co-founded the Good News Club, an evangelical after-school group, no longer gives interviews. His attorney said the school crossed the line when it banned Williams’ handouts without subjecting other teachers to the same scrutiny.

“It’s either they are treating this one teacher in a discriminatory manner or this school district is not consistent in implementing its policy to not use religious materials in the classroom,” attorney Jordan Lorence said.

Administrators said the materials are inappropriate for 10- and 11-year-olds. They question why Williams included writings from a 17th-century Swiss jurist who tried to explain natural law by tracing its origin to God.

“Our job is to ensure that students are given information in an appropriate way, consistent with their age and their level of sophistication,” said district Superintendent William Bragg.

The principal ordered Williams to submit his lesson plans and supplemental handouts for review in May, according to the suit. By November, the Alliance Defense Fund took on Williams’ case and issued a news release headlined, “Declaration of Independence Banned From Classroom.”

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Christian legal organization neglected to mention that the declaration is included in its entirety in students’ fifth-grade history textbook and that a replica of the colonial artifact hangs on a library wall.

Conservative talk-show personalities, including radio host Rush Limbaugh, and online discussion groups seized on the story.

Fox News’ talk show duo “Hannity & Colmes” traveled to Cupertino, until then known mainly as the headquarters of Apple Computer Inc., for a live broadcast titled “Take Back America.”

“It’s just sad to me that the separation of church and state has been just kind of warped to mean that we can’t even include some of our founding documents in the classroom,” Williams said on the show.

His lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland and names the principal, the school district superintendent and the board of education for the Cupertino Union School District. The district expects to file its response on Monday, district attorney Mark Davis said.

Williams joined the district as a substitute in 1995 and became a full-time teacher in 1998. He has said he wasn’t raised in a religious family but converted several years ago.

“My relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ is the one thing that makes me who I am today,” Williams wrote in the 2002-2003 Stevens Creek yearbook.

In the lawsuit, Williams says he knows better than to proselytize in class. Some students said Williams is far from a zealot.

“If he ever brought up religion, he wouldn’t say that what he believed was the right religion,” said Melissa Govaerts, 13, an eighth-grader who had Williams in fifth and sixth grades. “He’d also mention the other religions and say what they believed and stuff.”

But at least 25 to 30 parents have requested that their children not be placed in Williams’ classes, and some say his agenda is to spread Christianity.

As an example, they point to an Easter assignment he tried to give last year. It required students to complete two tasks from a list that included reading excerpts from the Book of Luke or presenting a skit on Jesus Christ’s more famous teachings.

Mike Zimmers, whose 11-year-old daughter had Williams for fifth grade, said such assignments were evidence of a “proclamation of his love of Jesus and his belief in Christianity as the superior religion.” But more troubling for parents at one of the region’s top public schools, Zimmers said, was that Williams’ focus on religion took time away from math, science and other subjects.

“Anything that takes away from the basic curriculum in the classroom puts the children at a competitive disadvantage,” Zimmers said. “That was really what this was all about.”

The publicity has taken a toll in the Silicon Valley town, which prides itself on diversity and tolerance. Sarah Beetem, a Stevens Creek fifth- and sixth-grade teacher for nine years and herself a Christian, said some teachers blame Williams for unleashing turmoil.

“This is a quiet, suburban community,” Beetem said. “Why is our school being attacked? We are nice.”

• Find Williams’ complaint on:

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press, via The San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Jan. 29, 2005
Bilen Mesfin, Associated Press Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 31, 2005.
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