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Civil libertarians denounce Georgia curriculum promoting 'respect for the creator'

By The Associated Press,
freedomforum.org staff

08.02.00

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ATLANTA — A new curriculum that encourages Georgia teachers to promote "respect for the creator" is drawing criticism that it violates the separation of church and state.

"Respect for the creator" is one of 27 traits that schools must encourage as part of a character curriculum that takes effect this year. The other traits include: courage, patriotism, citizenship, honesty, fairness, kindness, tolerance, punctuality and cleanliness.

The law allows local school systems to decide how best to encourage the traits.

As a means of teaching the curriculum, the Lumpkin County School System adopted posters bearing the national motto, "In God We Trust," and other quotations from historical documents mentioning God and the creator. But the county school board voted last week not to teach the creator curriculum until the state attorney general issues an opinion on whether the requirement violates the Constitution.

People for the American Way, a national civil liberties group, has threatened to sue Lumpkin County and the state over the language. The group is representing parents of two Lumpkin schoolchildren who object to the language.

"The government can't tell citizens they must have respect for God or the creator or whatever name the government wants to use," said Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal counsel for the group.

Elliot Mincberg, the group's general counsel and legal director, told
The Freedom Forum Online that teaching the creator curriculum would illegally promote "religion to a captive audience of school children."

Schaeffer and Mincberg sent a letter to the school board July 17 calling the curriculum an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

"There can be no legitimate question that teaching students to have 'respect for the creator' endorses religion over nonreligion and crosses the required line of government neutrality toward religion," the letter states. "It would be difficult to imagine a greater violation of freedom of conscience than the government's instructing children that they should hold particular religious beliefs as a matter of good character."

Mincberg says the organization is waiting to see if the attorney general receives a request for an opinion on the "creator" language before it decides to take any legal action. The group is also investigating other counties' plans for teaching the curriculum, Mincberg said.

Lumpkin School Superintendent David Luke said county lawyers are scrambling to put together a formal request for an opinion from the attorney general.

"We will ask the attorney general to take a look at this issue," school board attorney Sam Harben told
The Freedom Forum Online. "Is it okay to use the posters and does it violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment? If it is an infringement, we want to know about it."

Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, said there was no way to predict which way Baker might rule.

Legislators who approved the character law in 1997 said the creator curriculum was acceptable because it did not specify a religion.

"It allows everybody to look at it through all different theories of creation," said state Sen. Richard Marable, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. " 'Respect for the creator' is very open."

School begins Aug. 14 in Lumpkin and many other counties.

Update

Georgia attorney general approves 'respect for creator' curriculum
But state's top lawyer warns that improper teaching of program could violate church-state separation.  01.22.01

Related

Parents group rejects settlement in Waldorf curriculum case
Suit challenging the use of courses by two California public school districts continues despite effort by schools to settle.  12.15.99

Civil rights group asks Florida governor to stop 'unconstitutional' Bible courses
Group's report says school districts using Bible as secular history text to advance Christianity.  01.14.00

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