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Unconstitutional? Charter school gets sued over history course some say is too religious

Posted September 18

A First Amendment watchdog group is suing an Arizona charter school over the claim that one of its history classes illegally promotes religion.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an activist organization based in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit against Heritage Academy in Mesa, Arizona, Wednesday, arguing that a history class held at all three school campuses utilizes unconstitutional content, KTVK-TV reported.

The plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, are Rev. David Felten, pastor of The Fountain church in Fountain Hills, Arizona, as well as an unnamed parent of a child who attends the academy.

At the center of the years-long legal dispute is an American Government class reportedly taught by school founder Early Taylor Jr. The course uses the "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land" textbook — and it's the contents of the book, among other points of discussion, that are of concern to Americans United.

The group charges the textbook "teaches students religious concepts such as creationism, divine judgment after death and the Ten Commandments." The text reportedly says that God created life and is the source of "all proper law," that God responds to prayers and makes other related sentiments.

There are also reportedly some "sound government" principles that students are required to learn — proclamations surrounding God and religion, critics claim. One reportedly reads, "All things were created by God, therefore upon Him all mankind are equally dependent, and to Him they are equally responsible."

Another reads, "Without religion, the government of a free people cannot be maintained."

In a statement announcing the lawsuit, Americans United said the legal battle might end up proving critical as it could "set national precedent by curbing church-state abuses in public charter schools."

The lawsuit also says there were other past complaints filed by parents against the school over similar issues, according to KTVK-TV.

In the end, Americans United said the case is about protecting citizens' rights under the First Amendment.

"The First Amendment protects our vital public-school system by mandating that public-school officials not instruct our children on religious matters," the complaint reads. "Choices about the religious upbringing of children are instead constitutionally committed to parents."

The battle between Americans United and Heritage Academy reportedly touched off in 2013, with a back-and-forth ensuing over the past three years.

The filing of the lawsuit came after a final August 2015 demand letter in which Americans United once again demanded that Heritage Academy stop any purported religious instruction, according to the complaint.

Taylor responded to grievances in a letter in 2013 saying the school does not "endorse or require students to embrace any religion or denomination," nor does it teach sectarian ideas in the classroom.

Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction stopping purported religious instruction, "nominal damages," and attorneys' fees and costs.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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