Features

Battleground state

Activism | During the summer, while many Americans are vacationing, those who are on the front lines of the culture war stay at it. From Georgia to California, meet three unnoticed trench-fighters-a pro-life activist, a self-declared bleeding-heart liberal, and a medal-bedecked Vietnam POW-who get no respect

Unsafe textbooks?

Kyleen Wright flew from Dallas to Austin and waited five hours for the chance to speak for three minutes in front of the Texas State Board of Education. Ms. Wright, president of Texans for Life Coalition, encouraged the 15-member board to approve four new high-school health textbooks that contain an abstinence-only message. But supporters of the books were in the minority at the July 14 hearing: Every person who spoke during Ms. Wright's five-hour wait criticized the books for excluding "safe-sex" material.

The board will hold another public hearing this month before voting in November on whether to adopt the texts. All approved books will be available for public-school districts to purchase starting in 2005 and are likely to surface nationwide. (Since Texas is such a huge textbook market and has centralized approval, publishers often create textbooks for Texas schools and sell them to other states.) Of the four textbooks under review, three focus on the abstinence-only message and the fourth briefly discusses condoms.

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Despite the poor showing by the books' supporters at the first hearing, Ms. Wright said she believes they have the strongest argument: "We are confident because we have the law on our side. The board is very limited in what it can use to reject a textbook. They will approve them; I don't think they have a choice."

The board has two reasons to reject a book: inaccurate material or failure to comply with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum requirements. TEKS standards require health textbooks to analyze the benefits of abstinence as well as the effectiveness of contraceptive methods.

Peggy Romberg, CEO of the Women's Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, said the proposed books do not meet curriculum standards or provide accurate information: "We have been appalled that the publishers have not included information regarding birth control methods and their efficacy rates and have not adequately addressed the use of condoms as a preventative measure against getting an STD."

At least one book under consideration, Lifetime Health published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, does not include the contraceptive information in the student version of the book but offers it in supplemental material. HRW spokesman Richard Blake said the company's decision to use supplemental material gives districts local control: "We've done extensive market research throughout the country, and the overwhelming response is to keep it in separate volumes so they can decide at the local level."

After criticizing the books, Ms. Romberg took a stab at publishers' motivations for excluding a "safe-sex" message from their texts: "Textbook publishers have decided to bow to what they consider the desires of extremists."

But one of the "extremists," Suzie Dionne, a coordinator for the Abstinence Resource Council who presented the abstinence-only message in Central Texas school districts last year, said, "I'm not against teaching about contraceptives at the high-school level, but I'm against it if they say it works because that's a lie. Abstinence is the only one true, effective way to not get pregnant or get an STD. Condoms do not protect against most sexually transmitted diseases. If you want to teach about contraceptives, teach about them. But give them the truth."
-Leigh Jones

Unsafe commandments?

Despite several U.S. Circuit Court rulings that the Decalogue can be posted on public property if it serves a historical or educational purpose, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court's ruling that an Ohio judge acted unconstitutionally in placing a framed copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. For advocates of Ten Commandments monuments on public property, that July 14 decision was another loss.

At least 20 Ten Commandment cases are pending in federal courts. So far, the courts have ruled against Commandment displays about 60 percent of the time since the beginning of the decade. Given that record and the legal costs of a Ten Commandments battle, some monument advocates are looking for a private-property solution.

Such advocates may have found a clever, but unlikely, champion in Jasper, Ga. Attorney Ed Marger is a self-declared bleeding-heart liberal and nonreligious Jew who firmly believes in separation of church and state. He's also previously worked with the ACLU. But he spent almost $6,000 of his own money to create large Ten Commandments tablets. He then hung them from a building his wife owns-30 feet from the Pickens County Courthouse.

The Miami Beach transplant wanted to give his adopted community a gift it would appreciate and spare it a legal battle. Residents in nearby Habersham County, which lost one of those battles, are considering following Mr. Marger's example. "They're the foundation of not only religious precedent but also legal precedent. It's the beginning of natural law. I believe in the rule of law," Mr. Marger said. "They're basic principles of how to live. Most people, regardless of their religion, cannot argue with what those Ten Commandments say."

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