The Texas State Board of Education has delayed its first vote on a new social studies curriculum to March.
The vote was scheduled for Friday but the board said it needed additional time to evaluate and revise curriculum standards for Texas public schools.
Amendments to the standards that determine what children will study in social studies class were debated Wednesday. More than 100 people signed up to testify before the board, either defending or opposing some of the proposed revisions that would be in place for the next ten years.
Steven K. Green, professor of Law at Willamette University flew in from Salem, Ore., to oppose efforts to "simplify, sanitize and sanctify" the content of history, government and social studies curriculums in schools.
He argued that the proposals to emphasize the religious influences on the nation's founding principles are "inaccurate and unwarranted."
"I fully support exposing children to the religious influences of our nation's history. Religion has played a very important ideological and institutional role in the nation's government," Green acknowledged. "However, there is a crucial pedagogical and legal difference between the academic study of our religious past and exposure of children to misleading religious truth claims particularly if they're for the purpose of instilling religious devotion."
While amendments to the social studies curriculum standards cover a host of topics including Hispanic figures to Christianity, much of the debate has centered on the latter.
Some of the proposed revisions that have riled up church-state separation activists include ones that would require students to "identify major intellectual, philosophical, political, and religious traditions that informed the American founding, including Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law), English Common Law and constitutionalism, Enlightenment, and Republicanism, as they address issues of liberty, rights, and responsibilities of individuals."
Green, who was invited by the Texas Freedom Network – an organization of religious and community leaders advocating for church-state separation – to speak at Wednesday's hearing, stood firmly against some of the proposals emphasizing religion.
"Too much attention can be given to the fact that our founders occasionally used religious discourse in their formal statements," said Green, who described himself as a product of Texas public schools. "Biblical rhetoric was ubiquitous during the founding era but such rhetoric tells us very little about the founders' religious devotions and more importantly, about their desire to instill those values into a system of government."
The historian denounced the practice of prooftexting, where isolated statements are taken out of context and then offered as proof of a figure's religious devotion.
"This is bad history," Green asserted.
He further contended, "Claims of a profound religious influence on the founding period and its participants should always be approached with caution if not skepticism. The founders were influenced primarily by enlightenment rationalism, not by a Calvinist understanding of depravities."
Several of the State Board of Education members expressed doubts about Green's testimony and did not hide their dissent.
Don McLeroy asked Green, "Would you characterize our nation was founded on secular and not biblical principles?"
Green replied saying if he had to defer to one or the other, then he would choose secular. The founding principles, he said, were based on enlightenment rationalism. For example, occasional references to the Creator in historic documents" actually reflect enlightenment thought more than they indicate any connection to modern understandings of Christian faith," he argued.
When Green claimed that enlightenment broke from a reliance on biblical based law, McLeroy looked at the professor with skepticism.
"My understanding is when I look at enlightenment principles, it sprung up in Christendom," the board member maintained.
Green was grilled by other board members, including Ken Mercer who noted that all 50 state constitutions have references to God, thus demonstrating that Judeo-Christian influence was apparent not just in the 1700s but all throughout U.S. history. Mercer expressed clear dissent with the Salem, Ore., professor.
The delayed initial vote on an updated curriculum moves the final vote and adoption of new social studies standards, originally scheduled for March, to May. The new standards will dictate what some 4.8 million K-12 students learn over the next decade and could also affect textbooks used by schools nationwide.