"The public education movement has also been an anti-Christian movement. We can change education in America if you put Christian principles in and Christian pedagogy in. In three years, you would totally revolutionize education in America." -- Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, Sept. 27, 1993.
Those sentiments aren't as distant as you might think. In fact, they may be as close to home for St. Louis as the ever-entertaining Fox C-6 School District.
The legal arm of Robertson's ministry -- the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) -- has been contacted by the Fox school board for advice as to whether board members have the right to begin their meetings with a Christian prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had written to the district on behalf of several parents who objected to the prayers and is now pondering further action.
Meanwhile, this isn't the only topic for which Robertson's ACLJ counsel might be sought: Still another church-state battle is looming, this one over widespread distribution by district teachers of brochures for a religion-based basketball program at the First Baptist Church of Arnold, which four of the board's members attend.
This has all the makings of a little holy war, right here in St. Louis' backyard. Although board president Carolyn Broach told me Tuesday that the board fully intends "to follow the law," she said the prayers (currently suspended) would be again considered by the board if they are given the green light on the legal front.
As to the brochures, board member Pete Nicholas -- one of two non-Baptists and usually one of the "2" in 5-2 votes -- said he had heard that teachers had passed them out to virtually every student in class (as opposed, he said, to the more acceptable practice of having them available to be picked up with other brochures). On the opposite side, one of the "5," board member Don Earl, responded, "Now they're trying to do away with one of the finest basketball programs ever."
This is going to get interesting, with or without Robertson's help.
This is the same Fox school board -- heretofore obscure -- that stumbled its way into big news in June by firing Superintendent Diana Bourisaw just months after extending her contract for three years and then changing its mind and trying to buy her out of it. After Bourisaw went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with charges of gender and religious discrimination, a media circus ensued, with public hearings at which district officials looked none too swift.
The board got clobbered, settling with Bourisaw for $373,000 (including $30,000 in legal fees), with the embarrassing footnotes that (a) it bounced the settlement check to her (as "account closed"); (b) Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon told the board his office is investigating it for alleged violations of state open-meetings law; (c) a group known as Fox-CAN (Fox Citizen Action Now) is circulating petitions calling for Auditor Claire McCaskill to jump into the fray; and (d) there's an awful lot of interest in the next school-board election.
You'd think that, after all that, school-board members would have had enough conflict for a while and would return to the good old days of metropolitan obscurity. Not in a holy war.
"The real issue here is power," said Sarah Boeker, a parent in the Fox district and a critic of the school-board majority. "This is about what beliefs are going to control our school district."
Boeker said she's a Christian who wouldn't object to a moment of silent prayer at school-board meetings:
"But I'm opposed to secular prayer. I think there are beliefs that are trying to be imposed in this school district. We have to protect the rights of everyone."
Board president Broach doesn't deny that if prayers are allowed by the law, they will be Christian prayers that mention Jesus.
"A Christian is someone who has relationship with Christ, so anytime a Christian prays in Jesus' name, Christ should be the center of that prayer," Broach said.
Board member Ronald Counts has been quoted publicly with words much like Robertson's about "the need to get religion back into our schools," and Earl told me he agrees.
"When I went to school, there was always the presence of the philosophy of Jesus Christ, and nowadays there isn't," Earl said. "Well, we didn't have policemen patrolling our schools, and we didn't have kids coming in and shooting up our schools."
Earl said stating a Christian prayer should be viewed no differently than reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, adding that the "socialists" and the ACLU are "trying to strangle all religions with this stuff."
It does have the trappings of a left-right issue, with anyone who actually believes in the U.S. Constitution on the "left."
In a speech several years ago to the ACLJ, Robertson drew the line pretty clearly in the sand:
"There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the constitution," Robertson said. "It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it any more."
That's not quite how Fox resident Donnell Miller sees it. Miller is a retired Air Force officer who describes himself not only as a Catholic but as a fiscally conservative Republican who voted for Reagan, Bush and Dole, among others. Now he's in the forefront of the school board's critics as president of Fox-CAN.
"I'm the kind of guy who never thought he'd call the ACLU for anything," Miller says. "But all this stuff that's going on is totally wrong."
Miller says that he got involved because of the Bourisaw issue but that he got further into things when he objected to the board prayers.
"I have never believed in prayer on the taxpayers' nickel," Miller says. But, he adds, there's a lot more going on with the board than that issue.
"I really think it's a smokescreen for bigger things," Miller says.
Like the ones, say, that Pat Robertson has in mind.