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Public Schools Across The Country Are Violating The Separation Of Church And State

Kindergartner Kaidyance Harris, left, works on a computer with second grader Annabelle Davis at at Marshall Elementary School in Marysville, Wash, Nov. 4, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER
Kindergartner Kaidyance Harris, left, works on a computer with second grader Annabelle Davis at at Marshall Elementary School in Marysville, Wash, Nov. 4, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER

Part of the job of a public school is to provide life tools and advice for students and their families –- on everything from cyberbullying to parenting to general health. As part of that mission, school guidance counselors often curate a list of resources, some of which can be found on school websites, and even in curriculum.

But among the resources, one less than reliable source keeps popping up: Focus on the Family.

A conservative Christian non-profit, Focus on the Family works to promote right-wing values in public policy, including gay conversion, intelligent design creationism, and opposition to certain types of birth control. According to their website, they provide “resources for couples to build healthy marriages that reflect God’s design, and for parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.” It’s astonishing that the organization has somehow become a go-to resource on so many different topics for some public schools and even local governments, especially given the legal status quo which mandates the separation of church and state.

For the most part, when schools share Focus on the Family materials, it appears to be the work of random staff members, who may not know much about the organization they are promoting. But some schools are actively teaching class using Focus on the Family’s materials.

McGee and Me describes itself as “an animated wonder that teaches biblical values.”

A video series by Focus on the Family titled McGee and Me has become one of the most obvious examples of the organization’s influence in some school districts. McGee and Me describes itself as “an animated wonder that teaches biblical values.” In one episode, all the bullies hate Christmas because they’re not Christian, and they’re actually bullies because their fathers were alcoholics. In the end, the conflict is resolved when the main character helps his bully find Jesus.

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There doesn’t seem to be a lot of health class relevant content, but it’s been used as “comprehensive health” education in the sixth grade curriculum of Spartanburg County School District in South Carolina. It’s also used as “Character Education” by Pinellas County School District in Largo, Florida.

“From what we’ve seen of the McGee and Me series, identifying it as ‘Comprehensive Health’… is a stretch,” Chitra Panjabi, President and CEO of the Sexuality Information Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), told ThinkProgress over email. “Any curriculum that bills itself as a ‘Comprehensive Health’ curriculum and does not explicitly deal with sexuality is failing to provide the information and education that young people in this country need.”

Alongside schools which teach McGee and Me as health, the other ways many schools promote Focus on the Family seems relatively innocuous. It’s unclear how many parents and students are actually reached through school websites, but these smaller violations of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits government promotion of religion, still add up.

“I always find it annoying when public institutions refer people to Focus on the Family,” said Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s Rob Boston, who pointed out that even when we weren’t talking about Focus on the Family’s broader role in the culture wars, they still promoted problematic practices. Focus on the Family “tells parents it’s alright to beat their kids and promotes gender roles from the 19th century,” he said.

Focus on the Family’s own materials make it clear that it does condone hitting children. A parenting guide on child discipline from the organization, titled The Biblical Approach to Spanking, includes tips like, “When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropriately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That’s all the force you need.” It also says, “It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept — and it’s okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles.”

And there’s a ton of places that recommend Focus on the Family as a health or parenting resource.

Wright County in Minnesota put together a Children’s Resource Guide, where they list Focus on the Family alongside the CDC and the Wright County Department of Public Health as a tool for “general [disease] prevention.”

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Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky, recommends Focus on the Family as a resource that “evaluates spiritual gifts as well as intellectual abilities” to help students choosing colleges.

Thompson Elementary in San Bernardino, California, suggests checking out the organization’s website for “parenting training.” Wren Elementary in Piedmont, South Carolina recommends Focus on the Family for advice about families and family protection. Centerville School District in Sand Coulee, Montana, provides “parent information” in the form of a link to Citizen Link, the local Focus on the Family affiliate, explaining the group is “a family advocacy organization that inspires men and women to live out biblical citizenship that transforms culture.”

Focus On The Family: How (Not) To Talk To Your Kids About Transgender IssuesLGBT by CREDIT: AP Photo/Vince Bucci Focus on the Family and its action arm CitizenLink, issued some fresh advice this…thinkprogress.orgPennsylvania’s Virtual Academy Charter School cites Focus on the Family to differentiate between chores, like dusting, and life skills like balancing a checkbook. They also cite the controversial Rabbi Schmuley Boteach to urge parents to assign chores. An Oklahoma City Public Schools Education special education guide also cites Focus on the Family materials to help define what chores to do at what ages. This guide is apparently being used by Pascagoula-Gautier School District in Mississippi as well.

ThinkProgress reached out to Focus on the Family to understand why so many schools are using their materials, but didn’t get any clear answers.

“Our materials are available online and so while I suspect some schools have used them, we don’t have a way to track it,” said Paul Batura, Vice President of Communications for Focus on the Family.

Still, Batura pointed out that most of Focus on the Family’s resources are dedicated to creating the type of religiously oriented family and parenting materials these schools are using. “The advocacy side is what usually garners the most headlines due to the controversial nature of the subjects,” he said. “In fact, 95 percent of our budget is devoted to this type of work.”

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No matter which Focus on the Family message these materials are spreading, whether it’s anti-gay or just religious parenting and discipline, they’re not resources that should be promoted by public schools or the government.

Focus on the Family’s agenda when it comes to public schools is less innocuous than Batura implied. According to an “Empowering Parents” guide by Focus on the Family’s “True Tolerance” project, the organization is concerned with monitoring things like “sexually explicit instruction [in health class] or the promotion of concepts like same-sex relationships being taught to children at school.” They warn parents to check school websites for buzzwords like “tolerance,” “anti-bullying,” and “family diversity,” which could signify that the school is tolerant of LGBTQ students. They also suggest providing school administrators with their “model school policies provided on TrueTolerance.org” — a Focus on the Family website — like an anti-transgender “model student physical privacy policy” which if passed by a school district would dictate “in all public schools in this district, restrooms, locker rooms, and showers that are designated for one sex shall be used only by members of that sex.”

“Focus on the Family offers advice on parenting, healthcare and other aspects of family life from a conservative Christian perspective,” said Charles Haynes, Vice President of the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center. “Although some of the advice does not mention religion, the advice given is framed by the biblical convictions of the organization.”

“In my view, the religious nature of the advice means that public schools should not be recommending Focus on the Family resources to parents and students,” he said.

Luckily, ThinkProgress was unable to locate any school districts using Focus on the Family’s policies, but the organization is clearly interested — and in some cases succeeding — in being a resource to public schools in order to promote their right-wing Christian ideological agenda.

Unfortunately, because many of the references to Focus on the Family in public schools are so small, it’s hard to get rid of them completely.

“We would do better to start off by educating people rather than threaten them with lawsuits,” Boston said, describing how to deal with the huge number of tiny infractions. “Some of the officials including this material may truly not know the entirety of [Focus on the Family’s] agenda. The organization’s name sounds innocuous, after all.”

Whether Focus on the Family wins or loses major public policy battles over gay marriage or birth control, it seems they are still, in large and small ways, influencing what public school students are learning.

Zack Kopplin is a journalist from Louisiana.