Past the official deadline, officials at the Grand Prairie Independent School District in Texas broke their silence yesterday and belatedly approved a plan to distribute Atheist-themed book covers on school campuses.
The response came just hours after American Atheists distributed a press release criticizing the district for apparent rejection of the proposal. Shelly Hattan of the Metroplex Atheists had informed AANEWS this past week that the district rules stated that after submission of any request to distribute literature on school campus, authorities would respond within 24 hours if they approved. Things were also looking glum, said Hattan, since Dr. Michael Grace, a member of the GPSB, had publicly said that the Atheist book covers "may have to be edited," and omit a quotation from John Adams, second president of the United States, who referred to the "bloody history" of the Christian religion.
The Atheist book covers include quotes by American historical figures, including Presidents John Kennedy, Calvin Coolidge, John Tyler, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The spine features Robert Ingersoll's reminder, "An honest God is the noblest work of man," and the back cover displays Madalyn Murray O'Hair's definition, "Atheism may be defined as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a lifestyle and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and the scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds."
John and Shelly Hattan, who designed the covers, decided to print and distribute their book covers after a local religious activist, Karen Wiegman, announced last year that she would provide students with jackets featuring a version of the Ten Commandments. The book covers--Wiegman hopes to distribute 20,000 of them--were manufactured by a Chicago religious media group, Total Living Network. The colorful jackets feature a "modern version" of the Ten Commandments and other quotations superimposed against an outer space background.
Another group distributing Ten Commandments book covers is the Family Research Council, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. FRC's "Hang Ten" campaign is urging display of the Decalogue in classrooms and government buildings and offices. An estimated 600,000 jackets have been distributed.
Chicago Effort Gets Wide Endorsement
Concerns about the separation of church and state have been raised following an announcement from Chicago Board of Education head Paul Vallas that he supports Total Living Network's goal of distributing the Ten Commandments book jackets at area schools. As reported by AANEWS, a staff aide to Vallas--Rev. Rev. Wilfredo DeJesus--showed up in clerical garb at a press conference hosted by the network to announce the district's "100 percent support" for the distribution of the book covers.
Meanwhile, dozens of other religious and political leaders from throughout the Chicago metropolitan region are stepping forward to boost the Total Living Network campaign. They include Alderman Walter Burnett of the city's 27th Ward; Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein--head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and a leading figure in the "civic society" ideological movement; and Father Michael Pfleger, who has attracted national news attention for his efforts to evangelize prostitutes and have the festive Jerry Springer Show removed from the airwaves.
In a Total Living Network press broadside issued last week, Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest at St. Sabina Church in Chicago, appealed to free expression, and said that even his Muslim friends supported distribution of the Ten Commandments book covers. "If they are not acceptable to some because of their mention of God," said Pfleger, "then should we take the Pledge of Allegiance out of our classrooms, which says we're a nation under God? Then should we take the Declaration of Independence out of our classrooms, which refer [sic] to God four different times?
"It's time to be concerned with the whole development of our children--developing their minds, their character and their values--and equipping them to become productive members of our society..."
Total Living Network announced last week that it has spent $30,000 to design and produce the book covers. Jerry Rose, president of the television network opined, "This is not a Church-State issue, it's about freedom of expression ... We're giving students a personal choice to decide if he or she will take to school this daily reminder of God's original 'Top Ten' list."
Critics, though, say that the active involvement of political and civic leaders, including Mr. Vallas, crosses the state-church line and constitutes an endorsement of religious belief.