Washington, D.C.—September 22, 2020 —The church/state separation watchdog American Atheists has sent advisory letters to education chiefs in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, warning that public schools’ online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic may include unconstitutional religious materials.
Since launching an investigation in early September, American Atheists has received multiple complaints from families in Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico, and Kansas. Many parents have cited a third grade Social Studies class offered by Edgenuity, an online education provider. The course in question, among other things, teaches Bible stories, including Joseph of the Many-Colored Coat and the Tower of Babel, as social studies.
“I was stunned to see theology being taught to my child in the guise of social studies,” said Ryan Thibodeau, American Atheists’ Assistant State Director for Detroit, Michigan, whose 8-year old daughter must take this 3rd grade class. “I’ve received messages from concerned parents in my district who are seeing the obvious religious bias in other sections of the curriculum. This is a clear violation of church/state separation and must not be allowed to continue in public schools.”
In an email to American Atheists, Edgenuity recognized that this material is not appropriate and indicated it is looking into how to correct the problem with a subcontractor. In the meantime, these class materials are still being provided to public school children. American Atheists views this as a warning flag that similar content may have made its way into materials provided by other virtual learning service providers.
With the rise in virtual learning due to COVID-19, American Atheists warns that millions of students could be subjected to religious propaganda. For example, in 2019, even before the coronavirus pandemic, 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.”
“This religious propaganda aimed at 3rd graders is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists. “That’s why we need officials to remain vigilant and prevent religious indoctrination creeping into public school classes. This type of religious coercion may result in liability for school districts.”
American Atheists advises school districts to carefully review virtual learning curricula and materials for compliance with constitutional requirements, as well as state learning standards. In addition, the church/state watchdog signaled the importance of educators knowing that modules, units, and individual lessons provided by outside companies should not be taken out of their intended context. American Atheists has received complaints where materials that could be permissible in advanced high school English classes were instead stripped of their necessary context and taught to significantly younger students in a devotional manner. Finally, American Atheists has asked the state-level superintendents to communicate to school districts that students should not be penalized or in any way disadvantaged for refusing to participate in any assignments that promote religion generally or any particular religious beliefs.
“No student should be pressured into accepting religious indoctrination from the government. That’s something all parents—be they Christian, nonreligious, or a religious minority—can agree on,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “Public schools should be focused on educating young people, period. Just because students are learning remotely doesn’t diminish public schools’ obligation to protect the constitutional rights of all students.”