The Pacific Justice Institute, a non-profit legal defense organization specializing in religious issues and parental rights, filed two administrative complaints on behalf of parents in the San Luis Coastal Unified and Lemon Grove school districts. Complaints may be filed in at least two other districts, says institute president Brad Dacus.
Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin on Wednesday issued a statement responding to complaints against the textbook, Across the Centuries , which is state-approved and has been in use since 1991. "The question is: Are all things Muslim now considered evil?" the statement asks.
Jen Schroeder, a parent from San Luis Obispo, says the textbook "whitewashes Islam and denigrates Christianity." She cites a section that says, "The Arabic word Qur'an can be loosely translated as 'recitation.' In fact, the very first word the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad was 'Recite.' " And another passage: "Arabic lettering had a special significance for Muslims, because it was used to write down God's words as they had been given to Muhammad."
Her objections go beyond this particular textbook. "I was deeply upset that they asked kids in my fourth-grade son's class to dance to African gods," she says. "I'm also extremely upset about the ninth-grade textbook that pretty much says man created God. It's not just Islam, though why they would promote such a violent religion is beyond me."
Collin Earnst, spokesman for Houghton Mifflin, says the complaints came as a surprise to the company. "It's a widely used textbook, and it's been applauded for years as an objective look at many different religions," he says. "The fact it's come under fire so suddenly has been surprising to us when it's been approved by a panel of multicultural, multifaith scholars."
Other publishers are watching the situation. Rick Blake, spokesman for Holt, Rinehart and Winston, says he is aware of the complaints against Houghton Mifflin's text but has not heard of any objections to textbooks published by his company.
Across the Centuries is part of a two-book series developed specifically for California and its academic standards. Alabama also adopted the textbook, and it is in use in a number of other school districts. The seventh-grade text is designed to teach "the social, cultural and technological changes that occurred in Europe, Africa and Asia in the years 500-1789 A.D.," Earnst says. The focus is on how the beliefs of certain cultures help shape their motivation and their effect on history. Judaism and Christianity, established earlier, are dealt with in the sixth-grade text.
"There is nothing unconstitutional in teaching about religion and teaching about Islam," Dacus says. "Many parents are appreciative of their children having this broad awareness of the rest of the world and their faith. The problem is when the pendulum swings too much in the other direction so that it actually provides inaccuracies and distortions of Islam." Also, he points to classroom activities that encourage role-playing and ask students to imagine being Muslim.
Houghton Mifflin insists that nowhere in the text are students asked to engage in mock religious activities or exercise religious beliefs.
Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says there is nothing wrong with the activities suggested in the textbook. "We hope that part of what we are doing in education is helping students to understand how others view the world," he says. "It's only by having that kind of understanding that we can better work with people from different backgrounds."
The institute is not seeking to ban the books from the schools, Dacus says, but the textbook publisher is being asked to supplement or correct the points under criticism and "eventually to having the textbook edited and reviewed to make sure these points are corrected."
Edward Valentine, assistant superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, says district officials have responded to the complaint and are awaiting a reply. He did not divulge details of the district's response.