The History Wars Continue, Part II

Yesterday I talked about the Texas Freedom Network’s report on textbooks submitted to satisfy the new Texas Social Studies standards, looking at one set of complaints. Today I’ll continue by evaluating additional issues raised by the report, again as reasonable, debatable, or bogus.

2. “Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.”

The first of these contains the sentence, “Thomas Jefferson once referred to the establishment clause as a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ That phrase is not used in the Constitution, however.” The Network admits, “The statement is factually correct.” So, what’s the problem? “[I]t could give students the inaccurate impression that Jefferson’s view was personal and lacked significant connection to the First Amendment.” The Network wants the text to mention that James Madison also held this view. (Did he? If he did, why isn’t it in the Constitution? Could he himself have thought it was his own personal view and not a matter of law?) The Network also wants the text to talk about the Supreme Court’s use of the phrase in subsequent decisions. That use is of course controversial. The general form of this complaint, then, is that the textbook says something true that someone could take as undermining the Network’s preferred view of controversial issues without discussing other things that might help to support their view. We’ll see that form again and again. I rate this bogus.

The Network complains that the second textbook doesn’t mention the “wall of separation” at all. I see no reason why a textbook author has to mention things that support the Network’s position on disputed political questions. So, this too looks bogus.

The next complaint against that textbook is that it presents an unbalanced view of the school prayer decisions, in particular Engel v. Vitale, discussing the lower courts’ reasoning in support of school prayer more extensively than the Supreme Court’s reasoning against it. That might be because the Court’s reasoning is simple, and doesn’t require much discussion:

The petitioners contend, among other things, that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents’ prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. For this reason, petitioners argue, the State’s use of the Regents’ prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State. We agree with that contention, since we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government….

There can be no doubt that New York’s state prayer program officially establishes the religious beliefs embodied in the Regents’ prayer.

Still, a textbook should try to present arguments on both sides in as balanced a way as possible. So, I rate this complaint reasonable.

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