GRAPEVINE, TX -- Despite news reports to the contrary, Texas students will be required to learn about Thomas Jefferson and constitutional religious freedom guarantees, say two prominent members of the Texas State Board of Education.
Additionally, "Nowhere in our social studies curriculum standards is America referred to as a Christian nation," said board chairman Gail Lowe, a Republican from Lampasas, Texas, contrary to claims in a March 22 letter to textbook publishers by the liberal Interfaith Alliance.
In interviews with the Southern Baptist TEXAN about new social studies standards for Texas public schools, Lowe and Don McLeroy, the immediate past board chairman, said widely circulated news reports contained numerous inaccuracies, including claims that Thomas Jefferson was left out of the standards, that First Amendment religious freedom guarantees were omitted because conservative board members reject the concept of church-state separation, and that religious dogma had crept into the standards.
The board meeting, held March 10-12 in Austin, made national and international news, chiefly because Texas buys or distributes about 48 million textbooks annually, influencing textbook content for most other states.
The Guardian newspaper of London claimed on its blog that the board was "rewriting history," an assertion of the Texas Freedom Network, which bills itself a "mainstream voice to counter the religious right."
In the Interfaith Alliance's letter to textbook publishers, the group's leader, C. Weldon Gaddy, wrote that the board's "most egregious vote" was denying separation of religious and government institutions by rejecting a late amendment by Dallas Democrat Mavis Knight that students learn "the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others."
McLeroy said he believed Knight's amendment would paint the founders as neutral toward religion generally.
"They weren't," McLeroy said. "They simply didn't want a state church, a state religion. That's it. To say that we were against protecting the religious freedoms of all the people, that is all spin from the Texas Freedom Network. That's all it is. Because it's not right."
Lowe added: "The First Amendment very clearly prevents Congress from establishing a national church, but it also promotes the free exercise of religion. Students need to understand that this is what the founders intended. It is inaccurate to say the Founding Fathers were neutral about religion; most were strong proponents of religious faith but did not believe in a national church controlled by the federal government."
The new standards require, among other things, that students "trace the development of religious freedom in the United States" and "analyze the impact of the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom on the American way of life." Additionally, students must "identify and define unalienable rights" and "identify the freedoms and rights guaranteed by each amendment in the Bill of Rights."
The board's actions became fodder in the Texas gubernatorial campaign when Bill White, a leading Democratic candidate for governor, claimed on March 17: "Last week the Texas State Board of Education, led by [Gov.] Rick Perry's appointee, voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from social studies textbook standards. That's right. Thomas Jefferson ... was deleted from a list of historical figures who inspired political change."
Jefferson was removed from a list of leading Enlightenment thinkers in world history curricula, but he is included numerous times in U.S. government and American history, according to copies of the standards obtained by the Texan. As of March 22, the Texas Education Agency had yet to post the standards online for public viewing.
Lowe said, "The only historical figure mentioned more times than Thomas Jefferson in our curriculum standards is George Washington. There is no way students in Texas will avoid learning of his contributions to our country."
McLeroy, who is finishing his term this year after being defeated in the Republican primary by Thomas Ratliff, widely considered a moderate, said he voted for removing Jefferson from the world history Enlightenment period because Jefferson was merely "a son" of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Voltaire.
Responding to critics who say the board has a religious agenda, Lowe said, "The social studies framework is not about religious dogma, church traditions or specific denominational beliefs. To the secular, radical left thinker, however, any mention of religious belief is anathema. It is those voices who are screaming most loudly because they do not want to admit the extent to which religious liberties and religious faith have influenced our country."
Lowe said religious references are plentiful in the country's founding documents, which are heavily emphasized in the standards.
McLeroy said the country was founded on "biblical" principles from Judaism and Christianity, "but you don't see us putting it in the standards that we are a Christian nation and no one is pushing for that."
"The whole idea of the nature of man -- man created in the image of God, man as fallen -- those things are found throughout [the founders' writings]. Those are the core beliefs about the nature of man that make our country unique -- the importance of the individual created in God's image; you don't have a king; and the idea of man as fallen. You cannot trust man 100 percent so you have a separation of powers. That whole form of government is founded upon a biblical view of the nature of man."
During the meeting, the board also turned back some controversial revisions offered by teams comprised of teachers and scholars. The board voted to retain requirements that students learn about historical notables such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison and added language about significant political ideas, including the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God" cited in the Declaration of Independence.
The new standards will face a final vote in May when the board meets. Standards for given subjects are revised every 10 years. The board has a 10-5 Republican majority and an eight-member conservative voting bloc.