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American Atheists Launches Investigation into Religious Propaganda in Online Public School Courses During COVID-19

Update: Edgenuity reached out to American Atheists on 9/9/2020, explaining that the undermentioned Grade 8 U.S. History class at Cincinnati Digital Academy contained content from Edgenuity’s Grade 11 American Literature class. American Atheists is continuing to investigate how religious content intended to be studied by 11th graders for the work’s literary and rhetorical dimensions made its way into a middle school U.S. History class.

Cincinnati, OH—Today, the church/state separation watchdog American Atheists announced that it is launching an investigation into religious propaganda within online learning programs, which millions of students around the country are required to take part in due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

American Atheists is specifically investigating Cincinnati Public Schools’ online learning courses taught by Edgenuity. This private company describes itself as part of Alpha Omega Publications, “a leading provider of PreK-12 Christian Curriculum, educational resources, and services to Christian schools and homeschool families worldwide.”

In 2019, even before COVID-19, Edgenuity claimed more than 4 million students and boasted about “its products and services [being] used in each of the top 10 largest school districts–as well as 21 of the 25 largest school districts–within the U.S.” Now, with even more public school districts adopting virtual programs, American Atheists has serious concerns that millions of students are being subjected to religious indoctrination by Edgenuity and, potentially, other providers.

“Public schools must protect everyone’s religious freedom—not force atheist parents and families from minority religions to subject their children to Christian indoctrination,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists, who submitted records requests to Cincinnati Public Schools on behalf of local parents. “The school district must see to it that all materials presented to students meet constitutional standards by being free of sectarian content. Schools that partner with companies to provide educational services need to be sure those programs meet the Constitution’s requirements.”

Materials obtained by American Atheists show that in multiple courses at multiple grade levels, the curriculum provided by Edgenuity contains explicitly religious content that cannot be justified by Ohio’s Social Studies Learning Standards.

An entire module of third grade Social Studies on “ancient Hebrew culture” is devoted to Bible stories, including Joseph of the Many-Colored Coat and the Tower of Babel. Students must recount the story, transcribe a summary, draw a pictorial representation of the tower, and explain Yahweh’s motivations.

In an eighth grade U.S. History class, an Edgenuity instructor teaches Christian theology under the guise of the Great Awakening, uncritically reading sermons that promise eternal suffering for sinners; underlining important phrases like “full of the fire of wrath,” “You hang by a slender thread,” “divine wrath,” and “singe it, and burn it;” and discussing the afterlife and “what God has in store for them if they do not repent of their sins.”

“For many parents, threats of hellfire and eternal damnation amount to nothing short of child abuse,” said Blackwell. “Whether taught by public school teachers or private instructors contracted by school districts, religious propaganda targeting students of any age, but particularly impressionable elementary and middle school students, has no place in the public school system.”

American Atheists’ U.S. Secular Survey, the largest study of nonreligious Americans, found that nearly one third of participants or their children (29.4%) faced discrimination in school for being nonreligious. Of those who experienced negative experiences at school, there was a 21.5% higher rate of likely depression.

“Discrimination against atheist and religious minority students is all too common and does lasting damage to the mental health of young people,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “As atheists, we are happy for students to study comparative religion, but the material must be taught in an objective, neutral way that neither attacks students’ religious freedom nor threatens their well-being. Anything less is unacceptable and unconstitutional.”

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